Five Years On, Odisha’s Transgender Persons Yet To Get Land Under State Scheme
A range of issues – state apathy, knotty conditions, local hostility – hobble the programme
In 2018, 35 transgender persons from Gunupur block in Odisha’s Rayagada district applied for a rural homestead land under a state scheme. They were entitled to this under the Vasundhara scheme, which guarantees the state’s landless and homeless people enough land in a village to build a home.
The scheme, announced in 2015 and extended to cover transgender persons in 2017, has certain specifications – the land has to be owned by the government and fulfil the Orissa Government Land Settlement Rules, 1983, it has to be in a rural area and can only measure up to 4 decimals (1742 sq feet). The plot, which can be identified by the applicant or an official, must also be situated in the area where the applicant lives.
The Gunupur applications gathered dust for two years. Then in 2019, all 35 reapplied. They did this repeatedly every year, until May 2023. When all this failed, the applicants called local MLA Raghunath Gomango of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) with their grievances. But he had to be educated on who a transgender person is, and knew nothing of the scheme or its importance.
With the state assembly election coming up next year, the call to the MLA finally yielded results: the process of allotting land to the 35 applicants was finally set in motion.
The landmark 2014 NALSA judgement of the Supreme Court decided that transgender persons are entitled to legal protection of laws in all spheres including equal civil and citizenship rights.
Odisha, one of the pioneer states in implementing social welfare measures like food security, free housing and pension for the transgender community, sought to enact the Transgender Person Policy of 2017 ensuring basic facilities for, and no discrimination against the transgender community. But the policy is still under consideration and is yet to be implemented.
“We had invited inputs for the policy. Based on the inputs, the [transgender] policy was revised again in 2021 and is now under consultation. It will be enacted soon,” said Subrat Dash, an official of the Social Security & Empowerment of Persons With Disabilities Department (SSPED).
The draft policy also talks about homestead land and housing equality in the allotment of land in favour of transgender persons for residential and commercial use in urban and rural areas.
Why has there been negligible execution of the programme in the state? Our investigations showed that official apathy, confusing criteria for land allotment and hostility towards the transgender community are some of the critical reasons that have impacted the programme. Not just that, the trans persons we interviewed feared that mindless implementation of the programme could lead to the ghettoisation of the community. Its terms could also push them back into the villages they fled fearing abuse and discrimination.
Odisha counts among the states with a high transgender population: 5.75% of rural India’s and 1.5% of urban India’s transgender population lives here. Up to 4,316 transgender persons live in the state’s rural areas and 463 in its urban pockets, according to the Socio Economic and Caste Census (2011). However, their current numbers would be much higher as many are in the process of applying for their identity cards or are yet to do it.
The provision of homestead plots would ensure better socio-economic prospects and financial security for the community, say activists.
“Most transgender persons leave home at an early age to escape abuse. They have hardly any formal education, which deprives them of jobs and other economic prospects. Social welfare schemes fill these gaps and provide community members a life of dignity. Even a piece of land would ensure social standing, an independent house and financial security,” says Pratap Sahu, president of the Odisha Kinner and Third Gender Mahasangh.
In a statewide online survey of transgender persons conducted by the SSPED in 2017, it was found that around 14.5% of the respondents said they have no income and were living in poverty. Up to 69% said that their income was less than Rs. 5000 per month and 16% earned between Rs. 5,000 and 10,000. This income is not assured and comes mostly from begging and sex work. Less than 1% of the transgender population earns over Rs 20,000 a month.
For Manoj Sahu (32), one of the 35 applicants in Gunupur, land allocation would mean permanence. “Wherever we work, whatever we do, we long for a sense of security when we come home,” says Sahu, a post-graduate in English literature who works at the Gunupur municipality as support staff.
The youngest of nine siblings, currently Sahu lives with his 76-year-old mother in their ancestral home. “This house was renovated and rebuilt a few years ago. My brothers had paid a larger share and I contributed as much as I could. I am still not accepted by my brothers and they keep asking me to find another place to stay. I am here for my mother,” he says.
Five Years, Little Progress
In Gunupur, the final distribution of the homestead land is still awaited. In Bhadrak district, along the eastern coast, after more than five applications in five years, the district collector directed the tehsildar in March this year to identify allottable land. However, such orders and assurance have been issued in the past too, with no progress, say trans persons.
“Administrative officials keep changing and we are back to zero. We cannot be certain till we have the land deed in our hands,” says Soumya Das (39), a transwoman. She is among the 18 applicants from Bhadrak.
The mining rich district of Sundergarh faces a similar situation. Joya Tripathi, a transwoman from the district – and also the joint secretary of All Odisha Transgender Association – appealed to the Odisha Human Rights Commision (OHRC) for help. Based on her application of April 2022, the OHRC had written to the state’s Chief Secretary to submit a report on the issue by June 6.
All districts were directed to provide data on applications and allotments. The implementing department is still waiting for the numbers. “We do not have any centrally consolidated data on the allotment yet. The implementing agency in this case is the district administration and they are expected to keep a record. We have also asked all districts to submit a report but we are yet to hear back from them,” said Avaya Nayak, additional secretary at the state’s Revenue Department.
Officials however claim that in most cases the applications get rejected rather than delayed. “If there are issues with the application relating to land feasibility, income criteria, certification and so on, it is rejected,” says Sarat Nayak, Gunupur’s tehsildar. But the applicants we spoke to claimed that they are not informed about the rejection.
‘How Can We Locate Suitable Land?’
The Vasundhara scheme requires district collectors to identify landless people earning an annual income of less than Rs 24,000 and provide them homestead land. But, as we said earlier, beneficiaries have also reached out to administrators specifying plots. In some instances, officials have also asked applicants to identify the land.
The land identified by applicants must not be private, forested, or leased out to any individuals/ organisation earlier and be free of encroachment. Applicants told us that these are challenging criteria.
“Whenever we applied for land, we were asked to identify a potential land and then report back to the administrative office. But we are not revenue inspectors to identify which land is private and which is government. This process has been extremely discouraging for us,” says Tripathy of the All Odisha Kinnar and Transgender Association.
But administrative apathy is not the only roadblock community members face, there is also gender discrimination.
In Angul district, after community members followed up repeatedly on their applications, authorities asked them to identify land parcels.
“We did not know where to look for land. We finally found a place close to a village. When we went there, the villagers protested. They said that they did not want any transgender person to live in their vicinity. This raises multiple concerns for us, even in terms of safety. If we decide on a place whose residents do not approve of our presence, how do we live there?” says Dinesh Rath from Angul.
In Bhadrak, where 18 applications were recently approved, there were allegations that an appeal to the local MLA had resulted in insensitive responses.
Soumya Das (39), a trans woman who had to move from one city to another to locate a home, had finally settled in Bhadrak. She has lost count of the number of letters she has written to the administration. “The local MLA asked me to go back to the district I came from and apply for the scheme there. Bhadrak has been home for years and I have a family here too. Most transgender persons tend to shift places and find new bases due to discrimination and abuse they face in their natal home. The scheme is pushing them back to the same space,” Soumya asks.
The transgender applicants we interviewed are also worried about being ghettoised. In Rayagada, for instance, land for them has been identified in the Katalguda municipality area. “This scheme could also have meant better social inclusion for us. But the space we will occupy will continue to be looked at with a discriminatory lens,” says Pinky, from Gunupur.
Experts believe that the implementation of these schemes is impacted by a lack of awareness about the issues that worry transgender persons and also a poor understanding of who a transgender person is. This apart, the inefficient percolation of such orders and notification to the ground level officials adds to the delay.
“While the notification is issued by the state, there is a complete lack of awareness of it at the ground level. The department should really work on it even at the sub divisional level,” says Biswa Pattanayak, project manager, Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII). “To ensure the implementation of such social schemes, community-based organisations should be strengthened because there is need for community based advocacy and interventions.”
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