Post the verdict in National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India in 2014, West Bengal was one of the first few states to set up the Transgender Welfare Development Board (“Board”). The early euphoria of the judgment and the State Government’s prompt response in creating this Board seemed promising. The Board, which was set up on 18th March, 2015, under the guidance of Minister for Women and Child Development, Shashi Panja, was to function as a nodal agency for coordinating all policy decisions and development work pertaining to the transgender population in West Bengal. Additionally, it was to look into establishing a mechanism for the identification of the ‘third gender’. Three years down the line however, the Board seems to be languishing in bureaucratic lethargy. This is not because of the lack of initiative on the part of its members. The Board comprises of well-known and respected members of the trans community. Rather, the disenchantment with the Board stems from the lack of transparency in its creation, non-inclusiveness, internal divisions within the community and lack of a steady funding supply. This post will address each of these issues.
Board not Inclusive: Prior to the formation of the Board, few State Level Consultative meetings were held. It was hoped that these consultations would eventually lead to the creation of a more transparent and inclusive formation of the Board. Like any other social movement, the trans rights movement brings with it a heterogeneity of voices and views. This is of course natural given that within the trans umbrella, tremendous diversity exists with trans men, trans women and genderqueer persons and also Hijras and Kothis. Within each of these identity-based affiliations, divisions of caste, class and geographic advantages operate. A truly representative Board that enjoyed legitimacy would necessitate the inclusion of as many voices within the Board. However, one of the chief criticisms of the Board was precisely its lack of adequate representation. After some consultation meetings, the Board was arbitrarily constituted without clarifying on what criteria members were chosen and without providing an opportunity for persons to apply for the various positions. Additionally, many trans activists have also complained that the mandate of the Board was never clarified. Because of this lack of inclusion of persons from diverse backgrounds under the trans umbrella, another sustained criticism has been that there is lesser visibility to trans men’s issues.
Differing views: Another formidable challenge for the Board has been the lack of clarity on who should be the subject of trans welfare and politics. This lies at the very core of trans politics. Carrying the label of ‘transgender’ often enables one to access benefits and welfare measures from the state. While at a conceptual level most activists acknowledge
that there are multiple forms of identity. For the purpose of social protection and welfare, not everyone agrees that the net should be cast wide enough to include those who identify as gender fluid or gender queer persons and many activists have stated that including such persons confuses the government. In addition, some activists feel that if trans men wish to identify as a ‘man’ for all social and political purposes and not transgender, they should not claim benefits as trans-men from the state. This issue is viewed differently by different activists and trans rights groups.
Funding:- The institution has no independence and is completely dependent on the good will of the government for purposes of funding. Though the Board was set up in 2015, a meagre funding for some of the activities had only come in only recently.
Given these circumstances, it is no surprise then that despite the existence of the Board, it has not been a uniting force for the transgender community in West Bengal. Three years down the line, even basic welfare measures seem sparse. There are no housing, educational schemes or employment initiatives specifically introduced to benefit transgender persons. Even basic rights and entitlements are far from being realized. Unless the Transgender Welfare Development Board is strengthened by being given enough funding, made truly representative and given powers to take up welfare activities, it would not be of much effect and would only provide lip-service for the rights of transgender persons.