Feature story

“They [the transgender community] don’t have to be products. They can be producers too”

23 February 2022

Nachbaja.com is one of the first transgender-led start-ups in India. One of seven grantees of the UNAIDS Solidarity Fund from India, it is an artist aggregator platform that aims to empower talented artists from the transgender and wider lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community across the country. Since Nachbaja.com’s start-up in 2017, the aim has been to leverage India’s growing event organization market to set up direct linkages between artists and customers, alleviating the need for brokers, who may take a share of the artists’ income.

Operational in an offline capacity primarily so far in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the start-up has shown the way for economic empowerment to many among the transgender community. Leveraging the grant received through the UNAIDS Solidarity Fund in 2021, Nachbaja.com aims to create a first-of-its kind online app that will allow artists and customers to register directly and enable them to receive fair and complete remuneration for their services. The journey of Nachbaja.com has symbolized the amalgamation of innovation with determination and has already brought change even before its implementation.

One of the key figures behind the social enterprise is Reshma Prasad, the founder of Nachbaja.com, an activist and advocate for the rights of the transgender community in India. For this interview, Ms Prasad joined us virtually from Nachbaja.com’s new office, which her team has now set up using the grant received from the Solidarity Fund. When asked how she felt about this office, Ms Prasad said with a smile, “Earlier, we didn’t even have a place. Now, we can call our community members, customers and other partners to this office. This is developing faith among these stakeholders. If we can develop the app successfully, I think it will be revolutionary for the community.”

Ms Prasad has been actively engaging the community, leading economic empowerment projects such as the production of sanitary pads, which were distributed among slum-dwellers in Bihar, and spreading awareness about the rights of the transgender community in India. She said that the idea of leading a start-up started brewing in her mind when she saw the first few community engagement activities spark interest and motivation among community members to do more.

In India, it is common for members of the transgender community to perform in events. In fact, Ms Prasad notes that they have been a historical part of the culture of India. However, due to the relatively unorganized nature of the work, she said that brokers or agents normally take a significant share of the artists’ income. In 2017, she decided to set up Nachbaja.com to connect artists to customers directly (and digitally), allowing them to take ownership of their skills and services without the need for a broker.

From 2017 to being able to register the start-up in 2020, the journey was long and arduous for Ms Prasad. In 2017, she applied to the Government of Bihar’s Start-Up Ideas scheme and her application was accepted. While she received support from the government, she was unable to register the company due to the need for a Permanent Account Number (PAN) Card, which at the time only included two gender options, male and female. At that time, Ms Prasad realized that the issue was bigger than herself—she was fighting a battle for the community. A legal petition was filed by her, which was successful in making provisions for transgender people to acquire a PAN Card in India. Ms Prasad became the first transgender woman to have a PAN Card in her name. Overcoming this challenge was not just a victory for Ms Prasad and Nachbaja.com, it had a ripple effect across the transgender community in India. About the opportunities this reform presents, she said, “So far, over 1 to 1.5 lakh [100 000 to 150 000] members of the transgender community have received a PAN Card. They can now successfully open bank accounts, purchase property and take out loans.”

The next challenge for her were the hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. With events coming to a standstill during the lockdown and limited-capacity events being run after the lockdowns, there was initial apprehension. But just like any other challenge, the community was able to tackle it with the use of some innovation. Nachbaja.com recorded videos of artists’ performances and screened them through a projector virtually during events.

“The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t an easy time for us. Events came to a halt and, with that, our source of income. But when Nachbaja.com came up with the idea to screen our performances through a projector virtually, we were relieved. We could use our talents to continue earning a livelihood without putting ourselves at risk of catching the virus,” said Hansika, an artist associated with Nachbaja.com.

Discrimination and prejudice are battles that the transgender community fight every day. Ms Prasad believes that the reason we still do not see many transgender-led enterprises is because of misplaced apprehension about them. Through Nachbaja.com, she hopes to set an example that a social enterprise, when supported economically, can generate sustainable economic and social value. She wants people to realize that, “They [the transgender community] don’t have to be products. They can be producers too.”

Ms Prasad’s vision for the distant future of Nachbaja.com is for it to become a community-driven online platform that also encompasses infotainment. She hopes to connect with communities of LGBTI people, sex workers and people living with HIV and to promote user-generated content on the app. She has also discussed adding information on HIV awareness and prevention on the platform.

Chandni, another artist from the transgender community associated with Nachbaja.com, is optimistic about the potential of an online app, since it would alleviate the need for agents, who charge large commissions. She said, “When the app comes to fruition, we would be able to interact with customers and other artists directly so that they can see us for who we are. Moreover, we would not need to travel long distances to get our payments and negotiate, since everything would be online.”

Ms Prasad is confident about the potential of the app due to the growth of online apps in India. So far, her team has spoken to about 27 app developers in India to find someone who can align with their vision. The next immediate goal for the team is to find someone who understands not only the technological expectations but also the nuances of the community in order to deliver the best product possible.

The app development is the next step in this journey of innovation, creativity and determination that fuels Nachbaja.com.