By Annie Banerji and Hugo Greenhalgh
KARNAL, India Feb 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - F ollowing India’s September move to scrap a colonial-era ban on gay sex, more and more corporations are opening their doors to LGBT+ people and ushering in policies to make them feel more welcome.
But smaller firms across industries - textile houses, printing presses, rubber manufacturers, real estate agencies and others - are not racing to diversify just yet.
At a dusty roadside eatery in northern Haryana state, Babu Ram Bhoshne and six of his workers burst into laughter at the idea of hiring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and introducing LGBT+ policies at their workplace.
“Do I want to run my business or do I want to keep worrying about these people flirting with my waiters,” said the mustachioed 62-year-old, laughing at the cash register, with pictures of Hindu gods and godesses on the wall behind him.
“If I have kinnars (transgender women) and (gay) men walking around, I will lose all my customers. They are not ready for such things,” Bhoshne said, adding that his restaurant is most frequented by truckers, farm labourers and local villagers.
Experts say such homo- and transphobic comments are not surprising in India, which despite making great economic strides, remains a largely conservative country where homosexuality and premarital sex are still frowned upon.
And most of India’s 60 million small and medium-sized enterprises - which contribute nearly 30 percent to the national GDP - are in rural areas, according to government data.
Bhoshne’s Goldy Vaishnav restaurant was one of more than a dozen small firms the Thomson Reuters Foundation visited, with most owners unaware of or uninterested in gay- or trans-friendly policies such as health insurance for same-sex couples.
Ashok Row Kavi, a prominent LGBT+ rights activist, said that when most firms, including those in cities and satellite towns, continue to struggle with a wide gender gap, expecting LGBT-friendly policies in smaller ones was “far-fetched”.
“There are no women in these places, so from where would you get LGBT+ (people) in? If there is an effeminate boy, he’s in big trouble. And they won’t employ trans (people) for heaven’s sake,” Kavi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It won’t happen until we accept that the system has gone wrong, that there is a toxic masculine atmosphere all over, and until we learn through the education system to change it,” said Kavi, chairman of Mumbai-based charity Humsafar Trust.
India is home to nearly 56 million LGBT+ adults, according to Paris-based firm Out Now Consulting, a marketing company that helps businesses target gay clients. Yet the LGBT+ market remains largely untapped, mainly due to discrimination.
That is why large Indian companies are rushing to change policies to include gender-neutral bathrooms, insurance for same-sex couples, leave for sex reassignment surgeries and sensitising employees.
They are finding growing resonance after gay relationships were decriminalised in the world’s largest democracy, said Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej India Culture Lab, which encourages Indian companies to adopt LGBT-friendly policies.
“Corporate India has realised that whichever way you look at it - from an economic or talent perspective - everyone wants to hire millennials and for them, being inclusive really matters; they won’t work for homophobic companies,” he said.
The World Bank estimates that homophobia costs India $31 billion a year.
While Shahani said he does not see rural or even urban India becoming fully inclusive any time soon, he was hopeful that small businesses would follow in the footsteps of the corporate world, “otherwise they’re not going to get the brightest minds”.
Mumbai-based conglomerate Godrej and a handful of others, such as Tata and the Lalit Hospitality Group, have long offered LGBT+ benefits and workplace support despite the colonial-era law banning homosexuality, with the rest catching up now.
“As a business owner, I think it’s very important to have these policies, which for me make great business sense,” said Keshav Suri, whose family owns the Lalit hotel chain.
Reports, including from Accenture and the Brunswick Group, show that inclusive policies result in benefits such as greater national GDP, talent retention, more productivity and a better reputation that can lead to direct investments.
Not all small businesses are against diversifying. Three of those the Thomson Reuters Foundation visited were on board, but said the time was not right because of problems ranging from a lack of financial resources to fear of backlash from workers.
“It has never even crossed my mind. In the past 25 years of running this business, no such case has come up. I don’t think any of my workers are (LGBT+),” said Rajiv Mehtani, owner of Indo Farm Implements in Haryana’s Karnal district.
“It doesn’t matter if someone is gay or transgender as long as the job gets done ... We have to evolve with the times, but not immediately.”
As Mehtani got up to take a phone call, one of his company supervisors, who refused to give his name, said: “No way, such things are never going to happen here. There is no need or space for such people - men do all the work here.”
Gaurav Kaushik, who owns Bharat Polymer, a small company that sells irrigation pipelines to farms, said: “I am happy to employ (LGBT+ people), but nobody is openly gay around here (because) word travels fast and consequences are usually high.”
Outside cities, coming out has risks - from so-called “honour killings” to corrective rape, which are seldom reported as they are often carried out by husbands, brothers and fathers in a bid to ‘cure’ gay women, rights groups say.
Kavi said the violence LGBT+ people face is often from their own families, who beat them to make them conform and maintain the social balance.
To escape the beatings and find a sense of belonging, LGBT+ people flock to cities, and increasingly - with the internet and social media easing migration for jobs and gay marriage - many leave India altogether.
Shubha Chacko, executive director of Solidarity Foundation, which helps transgender people find jobs, suggested industry lobbying groups hold seminars outside metropolitan areas and engage with small firms to bring in tailor-made LGBT+ solutions.
But for Jaswant Singh, owner of a mustard oil company, LGBT-friendly policies are intrusive and best not to be introduced at work.
“Why should I bring in something that may make my employees feel pressured to reveal their sexual orientation,” 30-year-old Singh said.
"That is their business and I am here to mind mine." (Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Jason Fields; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories)