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Friday, December 1, 2023

Breaking Barriers: How Digital Apps Enable Transgender Beggars to Navigate Discrimination in India

Explore the transformative power of digital transactions in the lives of marginalized communities, particularly transgender individuals. Learn how technology is enabling financial empowerment, promoting inclusion, and fostering independence. Discover inspiring stories of resilience and progress as digital transactions pave the way for a brighter future.

At a traffic signal in the Indian capital, Ayesha Sharma, a 29-year-old transwoman clad in a traditional tunic and pants with a scarf, raises a smartphone displaying a QR code as the signal turns red, bringing vehicles to a halt. A passerby scans the code, instantly depositing 10 rupees ($0.12) into her account, providing a convenient boost to her panhandling efforts.

The surge in digital transactions and rapid payment platforms, akin to the one Sharma employs, is empowering marginalized communities such as transgender individuals in handling their financial matters.

Since 2006, Sharma, a beggar on New Delhi’s streets, has endured prejudice and taunts. However, her adoption of smartphone-based panhandling has lessened some of the negativity she faces. People are intrigued by the novelty of her digital approach, reducing past attempts to shame her, she explained.

Moreover, this method has encouraged donations from individuals who lack small change. Currently, approximately a quarter of her earnings come from digital transactions. Sharma expressed her gratitude for the ease of this approach: “It is so much easier now. Even though people are not always carrying cash, they can still donate to us by just scanning this code,” she told Al Jazeera.

Sharma emphasized the importance of treating beggars with dignity and respect. Digital transactions have spared them from the biases they often encounter when visiting banks, where they are frequently discriminated against.

The Indian government has actively promoted digital transactions over cash in recent years, employing measures such as the 2016 demonetization, which eliminated nearly 90 percent of the cash in circulation overnight and led to a surge in the use of payment apps. The pandemic further accelerated the shift towards digital transactions, with some of these habits persisting alongside the resurgence of cash as the preferred mode of payment in the country.

Digital transactions among transgender beggars in India have become a vital means of income, offering convenience and security. These transactions occur through various methods, such as apps linked directly to bank accounts or company payment apps linked to user-created accounts or wallets.

How Digital Apps Enable Transgender Beggars to Navigate Discrimination in India -2
Source: Leeza Khan, a transgender beggar, has a QR code for commuters to scan and donate [Rohit Lohia/Al Jazeera]

Leeza Khan, a 30-year-old transgender woman, uses a QR code that people can scan to send her money directly, accounting for 20 percent of her daily earnings. Similarly, Amri, a 23-year-old flower seller, receives about 70 to 80 rupees ($0.84 to $0.96) daily through digital payments.

Rudrani Chhetri, founder of Mitr Trust, highlighted that an increasing number of transgender individuals have been using payment apps without considering their eligibility for the service. However, the recent requirement for Know Your Customer (KYC) verification has led to complications related to their names and bank accounts. This challenge underscores the difficulties faced by transgender individuals in navigating the bureaucratic and societal barriers when attempting to access essential financial services.

Some transgender people live in communes where leaders like Kiran Sakhi, pictured, distribute barcodes to them in return for a commission on those earnings [Rohit Lohia/Al Jazeera]
Some transgender people live in communes where leaders like Kiran Sakhi, pictured, distribute barcodes to them in return for a commission on those earnings [Rohit Lohia/Al Jazeera]

However, bureaucratic hurdles persist. Despite directives issued in 2015 by India’s central bank recognizing the third gender, many transgender individuals struggle to open regular bank accounts or update their gender identity on existing accounts. The process involves invasive questions and harassment, discouraging many from pursuing official identification documents. Additionally, some digital payment apps now require PAN or Aadhar cards as part of their compliance processes, further complicating the situation.

As a result, some transgender individuals, like Khan, resort to using QR codes linked to others who have the necessary identification documents, paying a commission from their earnings. Despite these challenges, digital transactions have provided a lifeline for transgender beggars, offering a safer and more secure way to manage their finances, especially considering their vulnerable living situations.

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