Selvi Santosham is a physiotherapist at the Rajiv Gandhi General Hospital in Chennai who earns only Rs 7,000 a month, as much, she says, as a sweeper at the hospital takes home. Besides, Santosham's job isn't permanent: she is on contract.

This is not a reflection on the quality of her work. After all, Santosham is an award-winning physiotherapist with over nine years of experience.

The reason she is poorly paid and doesn’t have the security of being on the hospital’s permanent rolls is only because it doesn’t have a policy for employing transwomen – "a transgender person who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is that of a woman".

“There are vacancies in physiotherapy positions here,” said Santosham, who represents a small section of the transgender community that has received a college education and professional training. “But they are always asking me to wait.”

The need for reservations

However, a recent Madras High Court directive on transgenders offers some hope for people like Santosham.

On July 9, the court directed the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Department to consider a 3% quota for transgender people in education and employment by creating a separate category for them. The court gave the department six months to take a decision.

The directive came in response to a Public Interest Litigation filed in 2013 by five members of the transgender community, including Santosham.

Santosham welcomed the court’s directive saying that reservation in education would encourage transgender community members to educate themselves. This, in turn, would help them secure better jobs, away from the sex work or begging many of them are forced into for survival.

Job reservations for transgenders will also ensure that transgenders will not face the situation Santosham faces now – where she is blocked from securing a permanent job through no fault of her own.

“Many of us actually want to be considered as male or female,” said Santosham. “But we want to be given some priority because we are affected people. That is why we are asking for a third gender.”

A separate quota

In a landmark judgement in 2014, the Supreme Court recognised the transgender community as the third gender, and directed the Central and state governments to grant them the benefits that Most Backward Communities are entitled to.

The Tamil Nadu government instead passed an order classifying the transgender community as a Most Backward Community itself. “This is not enough,” said Neysara Rai, a transgender woman who recently launched an online support group for the community. “The stigmatisation that transgender communities go through is much greater. With transgenders, people don’t even want to look at them. They are unseeable.”

Long way to go

Although the idea of reservations for the transgender community as a whole is seen as a positive move, transgender rights activists say that it should not be viewed as the ultimate solution to the community’s problems.

They say that there is still a long way to go – from rescuing and rehabilitating people forced into sex work and begging, to making them understand their rights.

“I think reservations are an absolute need, but the problem is that in the transgender community at the moment not many are even 12th standard educated,” said Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender rights activist, actor and writer. “So there are very few people who would be going to the college, and fewer going for government jobs.”

Social stigma

Are reservations enough to eliminate the widespread stigmatisation of transgenders in India?

Activists say that reservations may bring transgenders into more mainstream work, thereby disassociating them from sex work and beggary. But they admit even then there is no guarantee that they will not be discriminated against.

“This reservation will be useful if it is done in combination with strong anti-discriminatory laws,” said Vikram Sundarraman, a member of a Chennai-based NGO called Nirangal, which fights for the rights of the LGBT community and sex workers. “If you can apply for [the proposed] quota and with that get a job, but then you are discriminated against when you want to use the restroom or the way you are dressing, it’s going to be futile.”

Legal issues

There’s also the issue of legality.

Tamil Nadu already has 69% reservation for various groups that face discrimination, the highest in the country.

In 1992, the Supreme Court capped reservations in states at 50%. But Tamil Nadu bypassed this restriction by enacting a reservation law, which through a Constitutional amendment. This was brought into the 9th Schedule, which protected the law from judicial scrutiny. However, this law is before the Supreme Court and a final verdict on its legality is awaited.

Even if the state government agrees to a quota for transgenders, it will, in all likelihood, have to carve it out from this existing 69%, which won’t be easy and then there’s also the matter pending before the apex court.

“We know that we will not get 3%,” said Sajeev Kumar, an advocate. “But in 1,000 posts if one transgender gets a job, the entire community will benefit."