Mumbai: In a historic legislative action, the Rajya Sabha approved a private member’s bill on the rights of transgenders on Friday.

The bill was passed unanimously by voice vote in the upper house of Parliament. Usually a private member’s bill—introduced by a legislator who is not a member of the cabinet—is withdrawn after discussion in the upper House.

The bill was introduced by Rajya Sabha member Tiruchi Siva of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam on 12 December. It came up for discussion in February and March before being put to vote on Friday.

“The constitution guarantees political rights and benefits to all citizens of this country, but the transgender community continues to be ostracized," Siva told the Rajya Sabha on Friday.

“This is a segment of society which all of us should be concerned with," said finance minister Arun Jaitley, who is also a member of Rajya Sabha.

The support towards upholding and recognizing the rights of a sexual minority community cuts across political parties, and follows last year’s landmark Nalsa judgement by the Supreme Court that recognized the third gender.

The judgement, passed on 15 April 2014, directed the central and state governments to offer benefits to transgenders. The government has asked for clarifications from the apex court before it implements the directives.

The government will defend the legal rights of the transgenders, said Thaawar Chand Gehlot, minister of social justice and empowerment.

The private bill offers remedies against abuse and violence faced by transgenders by equipping them with job skills, and offering employment opportunities, rehabilitation and social security. It advocates the setting up of a National Commission at the state and federal levels.

While the bill has been feted by activists, some concerns have been raised.

L. Ramakrishnan, country director, programmes and research at Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII), a non-governmental organization, disagreed with the need for separate sero-surveillance centres provided in the bill.

Such centres are already part of the National Aids Control Programme to ascertain the prevalence of the virus among high-risk groups, including transwomen, he said.

The bill also demands separate courts for speedy disposal of legal cases of transgenders. According to lawyer Anand Grover, this move ghettoizes transgenders.

Further, the bill offers provisions for transgender children, but leaves out a large swathe of youth who don’t use this term to self-identify.

“Since transgender is an identity term that many individuals adopt only at an adolescent stage, if not later, it will risk leaving a broad spectrum of children out of the bill’s protection. It is recommended that the term ‘gender non-conforming children’ be used along with the term ‘transgender children’ throughout the bill," said Danish Sheikh, a lawyer with Bengaluru-based not-for-profit Alternative Law Forum.

The bill does not address the issue of criminalization of sexuality by section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, said Akkai Padmashali, a sexual minorities activist and founder member of Ondede, a human rights group for children, women and sexual minorities based in Bengaluru.

“We are very happy that a bill has been passed in the Rajya Sabha for the rights of transgenders. While it addresses many aspects of our lives, it does not address the issue of the violation of our private life, which is criminalized by section 377. The bill talks of the constitutional right to marriage, inheritance, adoption, etc., to make us equal citizens," she said. “But our sexuality is as much a matter of our dignity as the rest."

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