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Brindaalakshmi.K - Gendering of Development Data in India: Beyond the Binary

This report by Brindaalakshmi.K seeks to understand the gendering of development data in India: collection of data and issuance of government (foundational and functional) identity documents to persons identifying outside the cis/binary genders of female and male, and the data misrepresentations, barriers to accessing public and private services, and informational exclusions that still remain. Sumandro Chattapadhyay edited the report and Puthiya Purayil Sneha offered additional editorial support. This work was undertaken as part of the Big Data for Development network supported by International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada.


Part 1 - Introduction, Research Method, and Summary of Findings: Download (PDF)

Part 2 - Legal Rights and Enumeration Process: Download (PDF)

Part 3 - Identity Documents and Access to Welfare: Download (PDF)

Part 4 - Digital Services and Data Challenges: Download (PDF)

India has been under a national lockdown due to the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic since late March 2020. Although transgender persons or individuals who do not identify with the gender of their assigned sex at birth, fall into the eligibility category for the relief measures announced by the State, the implementation of the relief measures has seen to be inefficient in different states [1] of the country [2]. Many transgender persons still do not have proper identification documents in their preferred name and gender that can help them with claiming any welfare that is available [3].

Historically, the situation of transgender persons in India has been so, even prior to the present pandemic. A qualitative research study titled Gendering of Development Data in India: Beyond the Binary was undertaken during October 2018 - December 2019, to understand the gendering of development data in India, collection of data and issuance of government (foundational and functional) identity documents to persons identifying outside the cis/binary genders of female and male, and the data misrepresentations, barriers to accessing public and private services, and informational exclusions that still remain.

The interviews for this study were conducted in late 2018 and this report was completed in the beginning of 2020, after India went through an extended national debate on and finally enactment of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act during 2019. Three key observations from this study are presented in this blog post. Although these observations were made prior to the release of the draft rules of the new law, it is important to note that the law along with the draft rules in its present version will likely aggrevate the data and social exclusions faced by the transgender community in India.

Observation 1: The need for data has sidestepped the state’s responsibility to address the human rights of its people

The present global development agenda is to leave no one behind [4]. The effort to leave no one behind has shifted the focus of the state towards collecting data on different population groups. The design of and access to welfare programmes relies heavily on the availability of data. The impact of these programmes are again measured and understood as reflected by data. This shift in focus to data has led to further exclusion of already disenfranchised groups including the transgender community [5]. The problem with this lies in the framing of the development discourse as one that demands data as the prerequisite to access welfare benefits.

However, there are significant issues with the data on transgender persons that has been fed into different national and state-level databases, beginning with the census of 2011. For the first time, census of 2011 attempted to enumerate transgender persons. However, the enumeration of transgender persons for the census of 2011 has been severely criticised by the transgender community due to lack of

  • Clear distinction between sex and gender in the census data collection process,
  • Community consultation in designing the enumeration process, and
  • Inclusion of all transgender identities, among others.

However, this flawed data set is being used as the primary data for fund allocation across different states for transgender people’s inclusion, note respondents. Further, any person identifying outside the gender of their assigned sex at birth faces the additional burden of proving their gender identity to access any welfare benefit. However, cisgendered men or women are never asked to prove their gender identity. The need for data from a marginalised population group without addressing the structural problems has only led to further exclusion of this already invisible group of individuals, note respondents. Further, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 was passed despite the severe criticisms from the transgender community, human rights activist groups [6] and even opposition political parties [7] in India for several reasons [8].

Observation 2: Replication of existing offline challenges by digital systems in multiple data sources, continues to keep transgender persons excluded

Digitisation was supposed to remove existing offline challenges and enable more people centric systems [9]. However, digital systems seem to have replicated the existing offline challenges. In several cases, digitisation has added to the complexities involved.

The replication of challenges begins with the assumption that digital processes are the best way to collect data on transgender persons. Both level of literacy and digital literacy are low among transgender persons in India. According to a report by the National Human Rights Commission [10], nearly 50% of transgender persons have studied less than Class X. This has a significant effect on their access to different rights.

Access to mobile phones is assumed to bridge this access gap to online systems and services. However, observations from different respondents suggest otherwise. Additionally, due to their gender identity, transgender individuals face different set of challenges in procuring valid identification documents required to enter data systems, note respondents. This includes but not limited to:

  • Lack of standardised online or offline processes to aid in changing their documents and vary within each state in different documents.
  • Procuring any identification document in preferred name and gender requires existing identification documents in given name and assigned gender, in both online and offline processes. However, due to the stigma with their gender identity, transgender persons often run away from home with no identification document in their assigned name and gender.
  • With or without an existing ID document, individuals have to go through a tedious offline legal process to change their name and gender on different documents.
  • Information on such processes, digital or otherwise are usually available only to individuals who are educated or associated with a non-profit organisation working with the community. The challenges are higher for individuals with neither.

Observation 3: Private big data is not good enough as an alternative source of evidence for designing welfare services for transgender persons

Globally, public private partnerships for big data are being pushed through different initiatives like Data Collaboratives [11] and UN Global Pulse [12], among others. These private partnerships are being seen as key to using big data for official statistics, which can then aid in making welfare decisions [13]. However, the respondents note that the different private big data sources are not good enough to make welfare decisions for various reasons including but not limited to:

  • Dependency on government documents: Access to any private service system like banking, healthcare, housing or education by any individual requires verification using some proof of identity. The discrimination and challenges in procuring government issued identification documents impacts the ability of transgender persons to enter private data systems. This in turn impacts their access to services.
  • Misrepresentation in data: The dependency of private services on government issued documents / government recorded data, and hierarchy among such documents/data and the continued misrepresentation of transgender people, impacts the big data generated by private service providers. Due to the stigma faced, many transgender persons avoid using public healthcare systems for other medical conditions. The heavy dependency on private health care and lower usage of public health systems, results in insufficient big data on transgender persons, created by both public and private medical care and hence cannot be used to design health related welfare services.
  • Social media data issues: Different websites and apps also use social media login as the ID verification mechanism. Since not all transgender persons are out to their family and friends about their gender identity, they often tend to have multiple social media accounts with different names and gender to protect their identity. When open about their gender identity, harassment and bullying of transgender persons with violent threats or sexually lucid remarks are quite common on social media platforms. Online privacy therefore continues to be a serious concern for them. Disclosing their transgender status also enables the system to predict user patterns of a vulnerable group with potential for abuse, note respondents.

In conclusion, the present global pandemic has further amplified the inherent flaws in the present data-driven welfare system in the country and its impacts on a marginalised population group like transgender persons in the country. Globally, gender in development data is seen in binary genders of male and female, leaving behind transgender individuals or those who do not identify with the gender of their assigned sex at birth. So the dominant binary gender data conversation is in fact leaving people behind. With the regressive Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019 and its rules, this inadequacy in the global development agenda related to gender equality is felt at an amplified scale.

Building on the work of Dr. Usha Ramanathan, a renowned human rights activist, I say that data collection and monitoring systems that tag, track, and profile transgender persons placing them under surveillance, have consequences beyond the denial of services, and enter into the arena of criminalising for being beyond the binary [14]. The vulnerabilities of their gender identity exacerbates the threat to freedom. With their freedom threatened, expecting people to be forthcoming about self-identifying themselves in their preferred name and gender, so as to ensure that they are counted in data-driven development interventions and can thus access their constitutionally guaranteed rights, goes against the very idea of sustainable development and human rights.



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[2] Manoj. C.K. (2020, April 24). COVID-19: Thousands pushed to starvation due to faulty biometric system in Bihar. DownToEarth. Retrieved from:

[3] G. Ram Mohan. (2020, May 01). Eviction Fear Heightens as Lockdown Signals Loss of Livelihood for Transgender People. The Wire. Retrieved from:

[4] UN Statistics (2016). The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2016. United Nations Statistics. Retrieved from:

[5] Chakrabarti. A (2020, April 25). Visibly Invisible: The Plight Of Transgender Community Due To India's COVID-19 Lockdown. Outlook. Retrieved from:

[6] Knight Kyle. (2019, December 05). India’s Transgender Rights Law Isn’t Worth Celebrating. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from:

[7] Dharmadhikari Sanyukta. (2019). Trans Bill 2019 passed in Lok Sabha: Why the trans community in India is rejecting it. The News Minute. August 05. Retrieved from:

[8] Editorial. (2018, December 20). Rights, revised: on the Transgender Persons Bill, 2018. The Hindu. Retrieved from:

[9] Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India. (2018). National e-Governance Plan. Retrieved from:

[10] Kerala Development Society. (2017, February). Study on Human Rights of Transgender as a Third Gender. Retrieved from:

[11] Verhulst, S. G., Young, A., Winowatan, M., & Zahuranec, A. J. (2019, October). Leveraging Private Data for Public Good: A Descriptive Analysis and Typology of Existing Practices. GovLab, Tandon School of Engineering, New York University. Retrieved from:

[12] Kirkpatrick, R., & Vacarelu, F. (2018, December). A Decade of Leveraging Big Data for Sustainable Development. UN Chronicle, Vol. LV, Nos. 3 & 4. Retrieved from:

[13] See [11].

[14] Ramanathan. U. (2014, May 02). Biometrics Use for Social Protection Programmes in India Risk Violating Human Rights of the Poor. UNRISD. Retrieved from: