BHUBANESWAR, India - India's eastern Odisha state is the first region in the country to give transgender people social welfare benefits - such as a pension, housing and food grains - usually allocated for only the most impoverished, an official said on Thursday.
Niten Chandra, principal secretary of Odisha's Department of Social Security, said the move to give the transgender community the same benefits as those living below the poverty line was aimed at improving their overall social and economic status.
"Most transgender people are in a very bad condition because of social exclusion. For example, they very often do not get employment easily," Chandra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The government had a consultation with transgender people in April, and they had raised their problems and issues. On that basis, we are now taking many decisions to help them - giving them the Below Poverty Line status is one of them."
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There are no official figures, but activists say there are hundreds of thousands of transgender people in India, many of whom face ostracism and discrimination, as well as verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
A lack of access to education and employment opportunities has meant many male-to-female transgender people - also known as "hijras" - end up forced into sex work or moving around in organised groups, begging or demanding money.
In a landmark judgment in April 2014, India's Supreme Court recognised transgender as a legal third gender and called on the government to ensure their equal treatment.
The court recognised the community as a marginalised group and directed authorities to implement policies to improve their socio-economic status.
Identity documents such as birth certificates, driving licenses and passports must now recognise the third gender, and a certain number of public sector jobs, seats in schools and colleges must be allocated to third-gender applicants.
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Chandra said Odisha's transgender population was unofficially estimated at 40,000, but added a survey would be conducted soon to get a more accurate figure.
Members of the transgender community will be given Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards that will allow them to access benefits under various government welfare programmes.
This includes schemes that provide free housing, 100 days of paid work annually, pensions and loans to start up their own businesses. They would also be entitled 5 kg of food grains every month under India's National Food Security Act.
Transgender rights groups welcomed Odisha's new policy and called for its effective implementation.
"We are thankful to the government. This is a welcome step. At least now the government has started recognising our problems," said Meera Parida, chairperson of All Odisha Third Gender Welfare Trust.
"However, we will benefit only when such a decision is implemented properly and does not remain just on pen and paper."