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By Aniruddha Dutta
WEST BENGAL, India—Mallika* is a transgender activist from the district of Murshidabad in West Bengal, eastern India. She has worked on an HIV-AIDS prevention project for males who have sex with males (MSM), but when funds for the project were withheld, she took to commercial dancing and sex work in the neighboring state of Bihar. “On average, I had sex with two or three men per day and at least forty men in a month, all without condoms,” she says.
Unfortunately, Mallika’s story is not unique. Since a new government headed by the Trinamool Congress party came to power in West Bengal in May 2011, the government has undertaken an administrative overhaul of state departments, including health—ostensibly to remedy corruption under the last government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Hundreds of staff members at HIV-AIDS projects have been laid off across eastern India, forcing many of them into sex work in high risk conditions. These cuts also affect the about 10,000 MSM and transgender community members who need access to vital resources such as condoms, HIV tests, and medical check-ups through these projects.
Working under India’s National AIDS Control Organization, the West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society (WBSAPCS) has not disbursed money—given to them by donors like the World Bank—to several community-based HIV-AIDS prevention projects, in some cases, for more than six months. Furthermore, WBSAPCS has not renewed at least 11 of these projects for the next funding cycle. Last year, the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika reported extensive misappropriation of HIV-AIDS funds by WBSAPCS officials under the previous regime, prompting changes in WBSAPCS administration under the new government. MSM and transgender activists worry that their organizations, which had obtained HIV-AIDS prevention projects through due procedure, are becoming unfair targets during the political changing of the guard—being shut down without explanation. This endangers the sizeable sexual minority communities in West Bengal with the continued denial of vital health services. But HIV-AIDS doesn't just stay in one community. Not addressing this population enables the disease to spread throughout all of West Bengal and beyond.
Ranajay*, the former project director of a closed project run by MANAS Bangla, a network of 13 community-based organizations serving about 6,000 people, explains the ambiguity of the government’s actions. Ranajay says that “contradicting the Indian government’s stated aim of halting and reversing the HIV-AIDS epidemic, these funding blocks and closures are in effect spreading the HIV infection, resulting in the increase of AIDS-related deaths among MSM and transgenders.” Since October 2011, WBSAPCS has withheld funds from all MANAS Bangla projects, eventually terminating them in April of 2012. In addition, four other intervention projects, separate from MANAS Bangla, have received non-renewal notices in July. Two of those projects have not received the majority of their funds since January.
According to Anindya Hajra, former secretary of MANAS Bangla, WBSAPCS stopped releasing funds to one of their projects in April 2011 due to alleged financial irregularities at the project and has withheld funds from all other MANAS Bangla projects since last October. Even though several projects completed their annual evaluations successfully in February as per NACO guidelines, none were renewed. In most of these projects, condom distribution to high-risk communities stopped four months ago after supplies ran out. And many staff members—many of whom have HIV—have turned to sex work without access to condoms.
“Besides the allegation of financial irregularities in one project at Burdwan, we are yet to receive any official notice with reasons for the closure of all our projects. The WBSAPCS conducted three special investigative audits at the Burdwan project, but they did not share the report of any of these enquiries with us,” says Hajra.
According to Hajra, concerned officials of WBSAPCS repeatedly refused to meet MANAS Bangla representatives despite many requests. Initial attempts to dialogue with WBSAPCS met the standard response that their concerns were being looked into sympathetically. Then, on March 14 when some board and staff members of MANAS Bangla went to meet the erstwhile Project Director of WBSAPCS, they were threatened with police action. “We have followed every procedure in the book to engage the authorities into dialogue, but we have been blocked. When we went to seek an update as to when salaries and other due payments would be released, we were threatened with being arrested,” says Hajra.
In another meeting with MANAS Bangla representatives, the director accused MANAS Bangla of financial mismanagement, calling it “an organization of thieves.” But, says a former outreach worker, “If MANAS Bangla is indeed an organization of thieves, then why didn’t WBSAPCS close our projects right away? Why did they keep us working since October, accepting our monthly reports till March without paying our salaries?”
In April, an anonymous inside source within WBSAPCS told the Kolkata-based newspaper The Statesman that organizations that received projects under the former government of West Bengal were being eased out, and NGOs close to the new government were being given grants under the National AIDS Control Project.
While such allegations of political vendetta may be hard to prove, the effects on staff and associated communities are clearly devastating. By March, condom distribution was discontinued across all MANAS Bangla centers as supplies ran out. Peer educators began leaving the projects, and halting routine field visits to promote safe sex. “Many staff members, especially cross-dressers, took to khajra [sex work] for lack of access to mainstream occupations,” says Rupa*, another outreach worker.
Some MANAS Bangla zones have over 50 people living with HIV-AIDS who depended on these projects for access to anti-retroviral therapy. Now, staff members living with HIV-AIDS are forced to join high-risk professions for money. “Surveys would probably find that HIV rates among MSM-transgender communities have gone up massively,” says Ranajay.
On May 17, MANAS Bangla staff held a protest in Kolkata to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Staff members pretended to collapse dead for three minutes to illustrate the situation faced by their communities due to the cessation of salaries and health services. Even though local media covered the event, there was no response from WBSAPCS.
Apart from MANAS Bangla, several projects in other districts are also languishing from the lack of funds. On July 17, the projects of four organizations working in four different districts of West Bengal—Madhya Banglar Sangram, Prantik Bongaon, Dum Dum Swikriti Society, and PLUS—received notices of non-renewal with effect from April 1st, without specification of cause. “Despite approaching WBSAPCS officials several times, we got only 25 percent of our grant amount till March, and in July, the project was terminated without explanation,” says a senior staff member of Madhya Banglar Sangram. A fifth project for transgenders run by the community-based organization, Koshish, has not yet been terminated but has also not received most of its due funds.
The effects upon vulnerable sexual minority communities are strikingly similar to the situation at MANAS Bangla projects. Senior officials of Madhya Banglar Sangram, Dum Dum Swikriti Society, Prantik Bongaon, and Koshish describe how staff members are joining high-risk professions like launda dancing (commercial dancing involving sex work). “I would not have gone for launda dancing, but there has been no salary since February. During the dance season, groups of men would come to us in the night and forcibly take us away for sex,” says a staff member of Madhya Banglar Sangram.
The funding gap thus creates an environment conducive to such human rights violations. Besides staff, broader communities served by these interventions are also exposed to severe health risks. A senior staff member at Koshish reports, “doctors are refusing to treat cases of sexually transmitted infections, because we have been unable to pay them for several months, so people coming to our intervention are not being able to access vital services as well as regular medical checkups.”
While the aforementioned projects are separate from MANAS Bangla, some of them seem to have been targeted for their alleged links with MANAS. A senior HIV project staff member who requested anonymity says, “I was told by the Assistant Director of Targeted Interventions at WBSAPCS that the projects of community-based organizations with board members who had also been on the board of MANAS Bangla will not be renewed, though our project is entirely autonomous, and our board was changed years ago. This seems to be a clear case of political revenge.”
While it is not clear whether political vendetta or bureaucratic apathy is at play in each of these different cases, overall MSM and transgender communities in 11 projects serving 10 districts of West Bengal continue to lack access to basic health services during the administrative transition between governments.
Activists are demanding greater transparency regarding funding decisions, timely release of past dues, and the continuation of vital health services to affected communities. “We want to know why our projects were discontinued, but no reasons have been forthcoming,” says a senior activist from one of the aforementioned projects. Activists have considered legal steps such as public interest litigations, but fear that due funds will be held up further if the decisions of WBSAPCS are challenged.
In the words of Ashish*, a former outreach worker, “the health ministry and government talk of health and human rights, but what are they going to do about the suffering of our communities?” Since legal redress is unlikely in the near future, community members hold on to the hope that a wider awareness of the impact of these closures might prompt the government to respond.
Aniruddha Dutta is a PhD candidate in Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota studying MSM and transgender communities and movements in eastern India.
[Image courtesy of Flickr user Oatsandsugar]
*Starred names have been changed upon request.