‘The growth of a city must come with inclusivity and economic justice for all’

Transgender activist Akkai Padmashali recollects the many facets of the city she grew up in and questions the ethos of an urban development model that further sidelines the marginalised

Updated - April 02, 2024 06:20 pm IST

Published - April 02, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

A view of Bengaluru skyline.

A view of Bengaluru skyline. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

I was born and raised in BMK layout which is close to Chamarajpet. Born a male I realised my feminine identity at the age of eight. When I was around nine or ten, I was kicked out by my family for trying to express my identity. 

Akkai Padmashali

Akkai Padmashali

I found shelter near the city market flyover where I spent about 15 days. This was about 25 years ago, and the area saw influx of people from all religions, classes and castes.

People were so prejudiced against non-binary people, and it was difficult for one to even come out of the closet. Stones and eggs used to be hurled at us, making it difficult to simply walk on the streets of Bengaluru.

The hostility was mostly from upper class dominant cis heteronormative men and women. 

One thing, however, I realised during this period was the larger amount of acceptance extended to us by the poorest of the poor – coolies, sex workers, fruit and flower sellers, street vendors.  

There was discrimination from the working class too, but not to the extent shown by others. The pourakarmikas were kind towards us. A few women’s and Dalit organisations also stood by us. 

Nevertheless, the feeling of insecurity was so high that after a few weeks I decided to go back home again. Till I turned 16 I hid my identity. 

A view of Cubbon Park.

A view of Cubbon Park. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K

Cubbon Park, a formative space

When I turned 16, I came out of my home again and joined the Hijra community. Eventually, I got into sex work and begging near Cubbon Park. 

It used to be one of the largest spaces available in the city where you could make a living out of sex work. The place was welcoming, and you could be yourself without anyone questioning you. Except for the police and the local authorities, nobody troubled us. 

I worked as a sex worker at Cubbon Park from 1999 to 2004. The space played a major role in shaping me as the person that I am today. It’s where I built my dignity from.  

The park offered me space for self-reflection. It sowed seeds of thoughts inside me – why am I a sex worker, why am I only a beggar, why I shouldn’t be part of the mainstream society? 

Several institutions such as the High Court, the Press club, state government employees’ union office and so on were nearby. When I would eat my oota on the footpath in close proximity to these institutions, I would always think why we are not in the court, why are our people not in the employees’ union, why are we not in these mainstream spaces... 

Sidelined as a city grows

Cubbon Park, where we all built our lives from and a space which empowered us, is not accessible to us anymore.  

Over time, things changed. Police started unleashing extreme violence towards us and we often became victims of gundaism. In Bengaluru’s journey to become a cosmopolitan city, the people of my community were sidelined and pushed out of their spaces as they didn’t fit the global notions of development. 

From the sleepy town it used to be, Bengaluru today has become a buzzing metro city. The world’s eyes are on us. But, to cater to the larger world’s notions of development and to pander to capitalistic desires, those at the grassroots levels are being sidelined. 

25 years ago, I was a very proud sex worker, today I’m not. The same is the case with others in my community too. Neither Cubbon Park nor the streets of Bengaluru are like how they used to be. 

People of my community are not being let inside the park today. How did these spaces become restricted only for the upper class and their dogs? 

Earlier we could go and sit near the steps of Vidhana Soudha, walked in front of the High Court gates; that’s not the case anymore. 

Sex workers and sexual minorities continue to be displaced in the name of ongoing development works such as namma metro, widening of roads, huge malls and apartments.  

Flyovers, the poster child of ‘development,’ have taken over our spaces forcing people out of areas which had become shelters to them for years and pushing them to slums. 

Malls have replaced local shops and streets, and transgenders are not allowed inside. 

The same is true across Bengaluru, be it Sarjapura, Yelahanka, K.R. Puram, Kengeri or Bengaluru Central.  

And if you want to protest these atrocities, you can’t do so in front of the Townhall, Mysore Bank or Jayanagar 4th block, but only at Freedom Park. To think that this is happening in Bengaluru, the hub of activism, is appalling. 

Development for who?

This is not the kind of development we should stand for. Development should come with economic justice, respect and acceptance for the region’s local culture.  

The living costs in the city have shot up. A mere ₹10 was enough for me to survive a whole day 25 years ago when meals cost Rs 3 and tea was ₹50. The city is no longer affordable for the marginalised. 

It is important for all sections of people to have their own safe spaces. The so-called safe spaces for the elite members of the LGBTQIA+ community have always excluded the working-class sexual minorities.  

This wasn’t the Bengaluru envisioned by Kempegowda or Kengal Hanumanthaiah. In the name of globalisation and privatisation spaces are being snatched away from people.

With the city alienating them, many people in my community were eventually forced to leave to other cities like Mumbai and Hyderabad. But why should I go? I belong to this city and I’m very much a part of it.  

I desire for Bengaluru to be pluralistic and inclusive; I desire that it becomes ‘people’s Bengaluru’. It should be a place where the poor can afford oota for ₹10. More initiatives like Indira Canteens and Namma Jatre should come up. It should accommodate all cultures and all sections of people. Inclusivity should be the north star for Bengaluru’s development. 

(As told to Shilpa Elizabeth)

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