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Story Publication logo June 5, 2024

NGOs Say India’s Government Hasn't Sent Funds It Pledged for Trans Shelters


Queer in India

About 17% of India’s population belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, but its members are unable to live...

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Backed by Modi’s government, non-profits set up shelters for trans people in India. Then, the groups say, the government left them hanging for funds

Vadodara and New Delhi, India — On page 34 of the April 2024 election manifesto put out by India’s ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pledged to better address a housing crisis. If voted back to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government promised to expand a network of shelters for transgender people. Locally, these shelters are known as Garima Greh.

The manifesto pledge is not the first time the government has spoken of its intention to provide housing for India’s transgender community, who face a range of challenges, including homelessness. In a press release published on February 8, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment acknowledged that transgender people needed “special protection in society” and that the government plans to open “at least one Garima Greh” in each of India’s 28 states, nine of which already have at least one shelter.

The shelter homes “not only provide free lodging and food but also free counselling, life skills, (and) technical skills so that (each person becomes) a confident and positive person,” the release stated, before adding that 12 Garima Greh were already “operational.”

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However, representatives of the 12 shelters told CNN that they are barely operational because they have yet to receive millions of rupees (tens of thousands of dollars) that the government pledged to send but didn’t.

The representatives said that after months of waiting for funding to be disbursed they were forced to find alternative ways to cover their costs, some getting into debt to do so, others resorting to looking for donations and dipping into their personal savings.

Using India’s Right To Information law, CNN sent questions about the shelter funding to the National Institute for Social Defence (NISD), the agency under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, partly managing the Garima Greh program. NISD only provided funding data for 2021-22, and referred CNN to the ministry to seek further details. Saurabh Garg, secretary, Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, directed CNN to the department’s joint secretary, Radhika Chakravarthy, who did not respond to CNN’s interview request.

The spokesperson of Bharatiya Janata Party also did not respond to CNN’s request for an interview for this story.

A good plan

In India’s last census, released in 2011, nearly half a million people, out of 1.2 billion, identified as transgender. The new census was supposed to take place in 2021. Since that was first delayed due to COVID-19, there is no clarity on when it will start. According to Anjali Gopalan, founder and director of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, a New Delhi-based NGO working for LGBTQ+ rights, finding safe, permanent housing has long been a painful experience for many transgender Indians, especially if they are poor. Many are forced to leave abusive birth families or are rejected by those families and end up sleeping in public parks and along roadsides, which can be unsafe. The fortunate ones will shuttle from one temporary dwelling to another, Gopalan said. “There are absolutely no safe spaces for trans people” in India.

A 2017 report by the United Nations Development Programme and India’s National AIDS Control Organization supports this view, noting then that “housing security” was the top priority listed by transgender people who participated in their study. Yet, at the time, there were very few programs at the central or state levels meeting that need.

Three years later, in 2020, recognizing this acute need for housing and other forms of social protection, the BJP ruled government issued guidelines to establish a network of Garima Greh. In the first round, NGOs and community-based organizations, with experience of working with the trans community, were invited to apply to run the shelters, according to the 12 non-profits who were later selected.

The guidelines laid out a detailed budget and plan intended not just to house but to provide holistic care for transgender people in need. The budget included the costs of providing these services — from acquiring a property to paying for each of the shelters’ 12-member staffs. According to the guidelines, a one-time grant of Rs 502,500 ($6,019) would be paid to each of the selected NGOs to purchase necessary items such as furniture, beds and kitchen utensils to set up a comfortable 25-bed shelter. Then an annual recurring grant of Rs 3,144,000 ($37,664) would be paid to cover operational expenses such as rent and staff salaries. The funding would be released in batches: 40% at the initial stage, 40% after six months, and the remaining 20% at the end of the financial year.

The money and service provision would be managed by a five-member Project Management Committee that included two representatives from the NGOs or Community Based Organizations, and three other non-affiliated individuals such as the district magistrate of the city the shelter would be based in.

Short-lived excitement

Things moved quickly. On November 23, 2020, at least one of the selected NGOs, Lakshya Trust in Vadodara city, received the funds to start the shelter, according to the trust’s financial records seen by CNN. Two days later, the government e-inaugurated India’s first Garima Greh to be run by Lakshya Trust. “This is only the beginning,” said then social justice and empowerment minister Thaawarchand Gehlot at the e-inauguration. “We are going to take long steps forward in this for the welfare of the transgender community.”

The launch was widely covered by India’s media, and was well received by trans activists, one of whom called it a progressive step.

By March 2021 almost all the other service providers had also received both the one-time payment and first 40% installment, representatives from 10 other shelters told CNN. Some said that they took a couple months to set up shelters due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. “We were all very happy about this initiative because it would help us keep many of the young and homeless trans people away from streets and going into begging and sex work,” said Mansi Jani, project director of the shelter in Raigarh, run by Aarju Foundation, an NGO.

But Jani’s excitement would be short lived.

As the 2021-2022 financial year ended, 11 out of 12 NGOs CNN interviewed said they had neither received the remaining 20% of the first year’s grant, nor had they received any money to run the shelter for the financial year that had just started. “Some of us began to worry because by this time our shelters were fully operational and we were relying on the government to continue running them,” said Rudrani Chhetri, founder of Mitr Trust, the NGO running the Garima Greh in Delhi. Chhetri is also the project director of the shelter.

A finance manager at Lakshya Trust, who requested to be anonymous in this story fearing reprisal from the government for criticizing it, told CNN that the WhatsApp group created by the ministry to facilitate Garima Greh related communication with the non-profits was abuzz with questions about the status of the overdue funding.

The manager said, that at first, responses from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment were vague and encouraged the administrators of the Garima Greh to be patient. “The government would say things like they are having some internal technical issues implying that we wait,” he said, adding at this time, most of service providers believed that the delay would be temporary. All the other NGOs CNN spoke to confirmed the manager’s account.

Despite the delays in paying the first cohort of Garima Greh in full, the government opened a second call for “expressions of interest” for new shelters due by the end of April 2022. This time the goal was even more ambitious: “Garima Greh will be set up across the country,” the call announced.

“Signals like these were confusing,” Jani told CNN. “On one hand the government was showing that it wants to fund more shelters while not releasing the funds to support the existing ones.”

CNN couldn’t confirm how many NGOs were selected for this second phase because the ministry didn’t respond to CNN’s request for an interview.

Coming together to save their own

As weeks passed with neither clarity nor funding coming from the government, the Garima Greh representatives told CNN they were faced with a tough choice: Either find alternative resources to keep running these shelters that had been opened at the state’s behest, or shut them down.

“Many of us decided to continue for as long as we can because we cannot let our community down,” said R. Jeeva, project director of the Garima Greh run by the Transgender Rights Association, an NGO, based in Chennai.

According to the government’s 2020 calculations, a Garima Greh would need $37,664 a year to run. Lakshya Trust in Vadodara received a $19,000 loan from its board of trustees, Bharat Patel, one of the trustees, told CNN. And to bridge the gap, he said the trust asked for donations from the network it had built over the last 24 years of its existence. Delhi’s Mitr Trust fundraised online and offline, as did the Tweet Foundation in Mumbai. Six NGOs told CNN that they appealed to the landlords of the buildings they were using for shelters for delays in rent payments. Three shelter representatives said they dipped into their personal savings to cover rations and rent. And project directors of four shelters said that they had to let some staff go in order to keep the costs down.

The communication between the Garima Greh and the government broke down further, said representatives from two NGOs, when monthly Zoom meetings with the shelter managers ended abruptly. “Since the funding stopped coming, the meetings also stopped because everyone would ask the same thing in the meetings: ‘Where are the funds?’” Patel told CNN.

By April 2023 “most of us were in a really bad place and the future of shelters looked bleak despite our best efforts,” said Jeeva. A few of the shelters’ representatives spoke to the press about the predicament they were in. “If the government had entrusted the Garima Greh to some private agency, they would have closed down their operations by now,” Chhetri of Mitr Trust told digital publisher The Probe.

In June 2023, after 14 months without any funds from the government, NGO Gokhale Road Bandhan had to shut down its Garima Greh in Kolkata, said its project director, Ranjitha Sinha. “We couldn’t pay rent,” Sinha said. “The government let us down.” However, the ministry in its response to a parliamentary question in December 2023 claimed that “No Garima Greh has been closed.” CNN’s email to seek clarification from the ministry was not returned.

23 transgender people staying at the Kolkata shelter were again facing homelessness, Sinha told CNN. With the shelter closing, she said, she felt as though she was abandoning her community and the guilt of it gnawed at her. So, instead of walking away, she said she sold her gold jewelry and used her personal savings and salary to rent a small three-room house. When CNN visited the new makeshift shelter, the five transgender people who were living there all told stories of running away from abusive families.

Too little, too late

In October 2023, after an 18-month gap in the funding, negative local coverage and a question about the state of the Garima Greh program that was raised in India’s parliament, five out of 12 non-profits told CNN that the ministry released some funds to them for the previous financial year 2022-23.

The manager at Lakshya Trust said their shelter received $29,800 for the period of 2022-23. This is approximately 80% of the amount the government had allocated for each shelter for the 2022-23 financial year. As such, that amount doesn’t cover the total money Lakshya Trust required to run its shelter for that period and the outstanding 20% from the first year, the manager said. Lakshya Trust now also had a debt to repay: “From that money we also needed to pay back the $19,000 loan,” the manager said. On top of that, the trust and nine other service providers told CNN that they had not received any money for the 2023-24 financial year.

The Garima Greh program is now in its fourth year, which began in April and no additional resources have been received, said representatives of all 12 shelters.

Given the government has allocated a budget of $43,840 in the first year and then a recurring annual budget of $37,664 for subsequent years, CNN estimates that each of these shelters should have received a total of $119,168 for three financial years between 2021-22 and 2023-24. But according to the government data released in the Indian parliament, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had only disbursed between $35,069 and $75,884 to the 12 shelters as of December 2023. Those totals mean that the NGOs say they received as little as 29%, and as much as 64%, of the funds that had been promised to them for those years.

One of the shelter project directors told CNN that the NGOs were waiting for June, saying the government had indicated that money would be disbursed after India’s elections were over. “We are all just hoping that the government will release the funds sooner or later. What other option do we have?” asked Pushpa Maai, project director for the Garima Greh run by Nai Bhor Sansta, in Rajasthan. Maai added: “We have been doing what we can to run the shelters but we need the money.”

Even as the shelters continue to make do and wait for funding, their representatives told CNN the government’s track record to date has cast doubt on the BJP’s manifesto promise to “expand the network of Garima Greh to cater to the needs of transgender individuals.”

“It makes me so angry,” said Gopalan of the Naz Foundation. “I don’t understand how the government expects NGOs to run their programs like this. It is one of the most frustrating things to watch.”

As for Lakshya Trust, the very first Garima Greh, Patel remains unsure for the future: “I don’t know for how long we will be able to continue to run the shelter this way.”



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