How the country’s first transgender-run Milk Cooperative Society in Kovilpatti has given them hope and an identity

Activist Grace Banu credits the District Collector, the District Revenue Officer and the relentless hard work of the transgender community in setting up the Cooperative
The transwomen at work
The transwomen at work

So long as you do not achieve social liberty, whatever freedom is provided by the law is of no avail to you

― Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

Society and the country have, for long, deprived the transgender community of many of their basic fundamental rights. But probably the cruelest of the establishment’s actions have been to deny them their identities, or rather the validity of their identities. Members of the transgender community have had to fight for government-issued ID cards for years, and even if provisions have been made, acquiring these cards continues to be an uphill task for many members of the community especially in rural areas. 

Government officials also seldom take into consideration that most transgenders are turned away by their families, or they are forced to run away and due to lack of opportunities end up homeless or living at the mercy of others. Having no home to their name means that they don’t get an ID card, which means they cannot avail the few government benefits in place for them — which also means it is a vicious circle that is keeping them disadvantaged. Trans Rights Now founder and activist, Grace Banu has been at the forefront of fighting for the rights of the marginalised. Grace has been instrumental in helping many transgenders get their ID cards and so this is how she came to meet the transgenders at Kovilpatti, Thoothukudi. This is where and why the conception of the Manthithope Transgenders' Milk Producers' Cooperative Society took place — and just like that, it became the solution to having an address to their name and a profession for their life.

 Grace Banu milking a cow at the farm

Grace’s many visits to government offices over the years to get even the smallest of government procedures done is a tiring event. Getting turned away repeatedly, pushed from one official to another, one office to another, sent back because the documents weren’t enough, discrimination, under the breath comments — she has seen it all. Which is why when she met District Revenue Officer, Thiyagarajan, she was surprised by his welcoming demeanour. “I told him about how much the transgenders in Kovilpatti were suffering and were unable to avail any government benefits because they didn’t have ID cards and had been pushed from pillar to post to acquire it. He listened to me calmly and said that he was inspired by the work that I was doing. He then asked me to go the following week,” Grace said. She then returned disappointed because she had heard this before and she felt her visit had been just another unsuccessful attempt. But she went the following week again but with no expectations. 

This time though, Thiyagarajan introduced Grace to the Thoothukudi District Collector, M Sandeep Nanduri. Grace was beyond surprised, “He greeted me and told me he had heard about all the work I had done. He sat down with me and patiently listened to me talk about patriarchy and discrimination and how it was difficult for transgenders to even get a house for rent so how would it be possible to have a proper address and submit the same to these offices. And how having neither was further pushing them into poverty.” After listening, Nanduri suddenly asked Grace to find a plot of land and said he would ensure the transgenders had homes to stay in. She was thrilled to hear this and set out to find land. Unlike in other districts where the government usually allots plots far away from the city where access is difficult, Grace decided to find a plot that is close to the city. But Grace knew that this would not be enough.

The women at the farm

“I told the Collector that the transgenders could not continue to be at the mercy of NGOs or depend on anybody else for their daily survival. They needed to have a livelihood. We were discussing the possibilities of a community kitchen. Then we landed on this idea of a cow farm. That slowly evolved into an idea for a milk farm but we knew that selling the milk would still be a problem because we could face discrimination from the buyers too,” Grace explained. This is when Nanduri suggested that the community could directly supply to a brand like Aavin to rule out any chances of discrimination. The team decided that they would take a loan and buy the cows and pay it off together as well. Central Cooperative Bank agreed to grant them the loan and Animal Husbandry trained them on how to go about the work. However, Aavin said that they only buy from milk ‘societies’. Here, the transgender group was in a bit of a fix and then they thought, “Why not set up a cooperative society?” And that’s how the Manthithope Transgenders' Milk Producers' Cooperative Society came to be. 

“We registered the Society, submitted all the required documents and everything went well. Then the Collector said that they would set up a building society as well,” the activist said. Grace said that about seven departments had come together to help set up the Society, this whole experience was very moving for Grace, “This was really something I had never experienced - witnessing people in power actually do something to help us. Give us respect and recognise us. From medical certificates to ID cards, we face unequal treatment everywhere. And now we had reached a place where any member of this transgender community could directly approach the officials and I know that they will receive respect from them. Which means a huge deal to me,” she explained. 

“Now, 30 transgender women are all entrepreneurs because of the Society. What makes me even more proud is because most of these women are young. I see them taking up the initiative, doing such terrific teamwork, running around, preparing documents, planning and executing,” Grace says, proudly. Their choice to pick the Society’s President was also a very interesting one, the team decided to pick Bhoomika to head their team because she had only studied till the seventh standard and would find it hard to find other jobs. Now who would ever think of that as a reason and what an excellent example to set for the rest of the country! The team takes their Periyar and Ambedkar teachings very seriously — their mantra is ‘Self- Respect and Dignity’, “That is our main aim,” the activist says.

Now when it came to naming the area that they were going to live in, the transwomen didn’t give it more than a few minutes of thought, “We did think of Aravani Nagar or Thirunangai Nagar but then almost immediately we knew, we had to name it Sandeep Nagar. We had to pay tribute to the Collector who had helped make us realise this dream. After all, we were creating history.” Grace says she also got the idea when she herself had read about how decades ago, a Dalit community named their area after a Collector for helping them set it up. 

The team along with Grace Banu

“We are 30 people and daily we manage to sell 300 litres of milk for 33 rupees per litre. During this time, there are members who are also studying for government exams as well. Some are waiting for their results, so they are also multitasking,” she explained. The activist says there is still a big chunk of the land left and plans are underway to set up a Skill Training Centre for the community and this time they want to name it after Thiyagarajan. Both Sandeep and Thiyagarajan tried to dissuade the transwomen from naming these spaces after them but they didn’t succeed. 

“The way this duo helped us is a stellar example for the rest of the country. This is how bureaucrats should work. They have to stand by those who are marginalised and those who are suffering every day. Because these transwomen are now independent, they don’t have to put themselves through transphobic situations,” Grace says. So, that is how this small group of 30 transgender women along with Grace Banu and two dedicated, responsible government officials, created history, not just for Kovilpatti or Tamil Nadu but for the entire country. With their newfound social liberty, this group of transwomen, will now also have the chance to taste freedom. 

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