Shanavi Ponnusamy has plenty of achievements to her name: The first graduate from her family, an engineer, a model, and an actor, who also has experience in customer support for a national airline.
None of this mattered however, when Shanavi applied for a cabin crew post with Air India in 2016. “I met all the eligibility criteria under the ‘female’ category – body measurements, BMI, height etc. That did not stop Air India from rejecting me four times, with no explanation whatsoever,” Shanavi tells TNM.
It would come to light later that none of Shanavi’s qualifications mattered, because she is a trans woman.
Air India told her they don’t have a policy in place to hire transgender persons, and despite the Supreme Court seeking a reply from the Ministry of Civil Aviation and from Air India on the matter in November 2017, the institutions have been completely silent.
Now, outed as a trans woman because of the controversy, Shanavi is stranded without any jobs, and has written a letter to President Ramnath Kovind, seeking mercy killing.
A story of discrimination and struggle
Shanavi hails from a poor family in Tiruchendur in Thoothukkudi district of Tamil Nadu. Assigned male at birth, she realised she was a girl when she was in school, but kept it to herself so as to not add pressure on her struggling family.
After much difficulty, Shanavi graduated as an electronics and communication engineer in 2010. She struggled to find employment for three years, until 2013, when she was finally got a job with Sutherland Global Services, a company which Air India had outsourced their customer support to.
Shanavi worked for Sutherland in Velachery as a customer support executive for Air India (international) for over a year, and familiarised herself of the carrier’s air operations.
She underwent gender affirmation surgery in April 2014, and registered her name and gender change in the Tamil Nadu gazette.
In February 2016, Shanavi applied for a post of cabin crew in Air India. She logged on to the website, and seeing there were only ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories for the applicants, she applied in the latter.
What happened next would continue to haunt her for many months to come.
The interviews, the disrespect
The first time Shanavi gave an interview with Air India, she says that the interviewers did not treat her respectfully. “The entire time, they kept acting like they were doing me a favour by even interviewing me,” she says.
She did not see her name on the list of selected candidates when it came out. This happened three more times.
“I kept thinking I was doing something wrong, and tried to work on myself. In July they actually put out an advertisement for vacancies for female cabin crew. But when they rejected me the fourth time in August, I finally asked why, and realised that it was because I am a trans woman,” she says.
The very next day, Shanavi went to the Ministry of Civil Aviation in Delhi. She met with a senior officer, who seemed to support her case. “He even called Air India in front of me, and told them to consider my case,” she recalls. “But at the end of the day, he is not a decision maker.”
Shanavi then went to the Air India office and requested a meeting with the Chairman and Managing Director (CMD). She had been writing to him since the first time she applied for the cabin crew post, explaining her situation, and that it was a matter of survival for her.
“I did not receive a response to any of my emails. When I went to the office, I was made to wait outside for hours. When I explained that I had tried to email them and take an appointment, they said that they would call me within a week; but if I wanted to meet the CMD, I would just have to wait. After five hours, I left,” Shanavi narrates.
In September 2017, she finally received a response saying that Air India has no policy in place to hire a trans woman. That’s when Shanavi decided to move the Supreme Court.
The case in Supreme Court
Shanavi moved the Supreme Court in 2017, alleging discrimination on the basis of gender, and violation of her rights under Article 32 of the Indian constitution.
The Supreme Court sought a reply from the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Air India on November 6, 2017 and gave them a period of four weeks to revert.
But in the three months that have passed since the Supreme Court order, Shanavi has received no response.
She also alleges that the date for the next hearing in her case keeps getting pushed further. “It was supposed to be on December 10, 2017, but when I checked, it was pushed to January 4, 2018. And when I checked in January, it had been pushed to May,” Shanavi says.
“I don’t know if it’s because of some internal influence, but I was told I would have to pay Rs 50,000 for the next hearing. I am struggling to make ends meet here, where will I get that kind of money?” she rues.
Outed, modelling jobs dry up
Earlier, Shanavi used to earn some money by modelling and acting in web series. But after the Supreme Court case made news, she has been outed as a trans woman and even those job offers have dried up.
Shanavi feels compelled to ask for mercy killing from the President because of the apathy the Indian government.
She writes in the letter the Indian government’s (through Air India) unresponsiveness on the issue of her employment and survival has rendered her incapable of even paying for her advocate. “So here I am requesting you that as I am not able to raise a question against Air India and Ministry of Civil Aviation as there is no response from them already, kindly do 'euthanize' [me]. I am proud to die in my Indian government’s hands,” she says.
“We are taught as children that we are Indians and this is our government. But right now, I feel like I am in a foreign country, where the government is making me plead for things I need for basic survival,” Shanavi tells TNM.
She also points out that if the government itself is so biased, you cannot expect better from private companies. “Shouldn’t the government be setting an example for others rather than having the same prejudice against transgender persons?” she questions.
“I do not have family support and I do not have a family of my own. It is not about earning money to support them. My job is for me to live a life of dignity and self-respect. But even that seems too far out of my reach now,” she says.
(TNM has reached out to Air India for a response, and will include it in the story as and when they revert.)