23-year-old Sobhan Mukherjee popularly known as the "Padman of Kolkata", started the initiative of installing Bandhan sanitary vending machines in various public toilets across Kolkata almost two years back. At that time, it brought out a revolutionary change throughout the state. His initiative to break the taboo related to menstruation had exposed him to criticisms from people, who questioned his interference in women hygiene. But, he did not lose hope and chose to fight the society's mentality which helped him to establish his initiative.
However, his efforts were not only limited to the sanitary pads and vending machine, he also formulated an app which would help women to find the medical stores where they can buy pads easily. Soon after this, Sobhan has come up with another program to uplift the transgender community in the state and give them a voice.
Under his new program, transgender people will now have reserved seats on private buses travelling to some particular routes of the city. In 2017, along with the menstruation-related initiative, he was also actively working for getting transgender toilets installed in Kolkata. The concept of reserving the bus seats for the transgender people has been named as 'Tridhara' which refers to the third gender.
This will inform all the commuters that transgender people are also an important part of our society and they should also get equal rights and privileges. Stickers and signs denoting the reservation have been pasted over the walls of the buses to make people aware that the seats are reserved for the third gender. The initiative was officially launched on 14th August, Independence Day.
"This particular idea of giving voices to the transgender community was not new; I had this idea since 2017. My first work towards empowerment started with Tridhara where I was instrumental in installing toilets for the transgenders and give them some visibility and make them feel accepted in the society," Sobhan told The Bridge Chronicle.
Previously in 2019, Transgender Board member Ranjita Sinha had to face humiliation while travelling in Kolkata metro when she tried to grab a seat in the women's section. Sinha is a social worker, activist and a member of the Transgender Board. "In 2019, when Transgender Board member, Ranjita Sinha was travelling in Kolkata metro and tried to grab a seat in the women's section, some women insulted her badly and forced her to get off the train and she had to get off too. I was present too at that time when the incident took place" Sobhan said.
"She later approached the metro authorities to solve this issue and give them equal rights and respect. She urged them to put up visibility awareness stickers in metro coaches for spreading awareness about transgender rights. But the authorities misbehaved and highlighted their community as some sort of untouchables who do not even deserve basic human rights. Therefore, her request was turned down," he added.
Sobhan claimed to have approached the metro authorities himself about the Tridhara project, three or four months after the incident, but he was also turned down. Following this, the idea of reserving seats for trans people in private buses came to his mind.
"In 2020, when I was returning from office, I noticed the private buses on route 205/205A to Bansdroni, so I thought of speaking to the drivers about the initiative. I was sceptical regarding the permission but still gave it a try. After hearing about it, they showed interest and gave me the contact of their respective unions. Following this, I spoke to our ward councillor Amitabha Majumder who was quite impressed with the idea and agreed to the initiative," he said.
"Soon after this, he arranged for a meeting with the union members where I spoke about the project and assured them of the program's visibility, aim and that it is not some kind of reservation strategy. They agreed to it and fortunately it got started successfully," he added.
"Also, this is strictly not a reservation program for trans people but a visibility awareness campaign, aimed at spreading awareness among the people regarding the rights of trans people. Supreme Court had already declared them as the third gender and granted them equal rights. There are posters attached to the exteriors of buses as well which promotes gender identity and visibility. This is important and absolutely my own idea and initiative," Sobhan added.
He stated that the seats will be reserved for trans people just as seats are reserved for women and do not promote any form of discrimination or inequality. The main aim of this program is to bring about a change in society and empower the community.
The Joint Council of Bus Syndicates (JCBS), the umbrella organisation for 42,000 privately-owned public buses in the city supported Sobhan with his initiative. Till now, 36 buses on 205 and 205A routes which move between Bansdroni and Babughat has already started using the reservations. After a month, four more routes in South Kolkata's Behala would also start using the reservations as well.
"Tapan Banerjee, General Secretary of JCBS has been supporting me throughout this project. He has even assured me to introduce similar reservations in around 42,000 buses across the state in the next one year," Sobhan said.
However, it was not a smooth process for Sobhan as he was subjected to various negative comments and condemnation by people. Some of them even asked him to reserve seats for SC/ST. But Sobhan knows what he is fighting for and takes all the negative comments in a positive sense.
"I have a few plans, if I get the opportunity or notice any issue that needs to get recognised, I would love to work on them and execute it," said Sobhan.