GOODS And Services Tax (GST) has hit the most unlikely of places — the country’s largest red-light area, Sonagachi. While there is a cheer for zero per cent GST on condoms, alarm bells have rung over use of sanitary napkins, for which one now has to pay 18 per cent GST. A cooperative bank run by sex workers, Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Society Ltd — the largest of its kind in India — provides sanitary napkins and condoms to thousands of sex workers at a subsidy. The bank, which has 30,222 members hailing from Sonagachi and other red-light areas of Bengal, is part of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee — one of the largest community-based organisations for sex workers.
“One of the major purposes of our bank is social marketing of sanitary napkins and condoms at a subsidy. We used to buy sanitary napkins at a subsidised rate and sell the same to sex workers… Now, there is a 18 per cent GST on sanitary napkins. Companies, which used to sell us products with special discounts, have now refused to do so. So, the prices at which we sell the items to sex workers is set to rise manifold,” said Santanu Chatterjee, finance manager of the bank.
“Over the years, we had worked hard to bring down the prevalence of HIV AIDS from 5-6 per cent (2000) to the current less than 2 per cent. We wanted to bring it to zero by 2025,” said Dr Smarajit Jana, mentor of the Durbar committee and the brain behind the bank. “We welcome zero GST on condoms. But GST has sent shockwaves too. Over the years, we were able to convince sex workers to use sanitary napkins. Most poor sex workers depend on our subsidised napkins. But now, there is a chance they will not use napkins, thereby becoming vulnerable to health hazards. The government could have either kept such items away from GST or put a 5 per cent tax… We will now launch fresh awareness campaign,” he added. Officials said the bank used to procure one sanitary napkin at Rs 3.33 and sell it at 63 paisa. After GST, the bank will have to pay Rs 8 for one napkin. According to Durbar members, most sex workers in Sonagachi — home to around 15,000 sex workers — and 28 other red-light areas in the state depend on such subsidised condoms and sanitary napkins.
“We are the single largest supplier of such items to sex workers. On an average, we market around 2d0 cartons or 65,000 sanitary napkins to sex workers every month. In some months, it crosses 80,000,” said Chatterjee. Bharati Dey, a former secretary of Durbar, said: “Only a handful of A-grade sex workers charge over Rs 2,000 from clients. They do not need sanitary napkins from us. But others, category B sex workers, who charge around Rs 500 and category C, who charge between Rs 100 to Rs 200, use subsidised sanitary napkins. They will be hit the hardest.” GST has comes at a time when red-light areas are already trying to recover from demonetisation. After Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were banned in November last year, deposits to the bank had dropped from Rs 4 lakh per day to Rs 70,000.
“Condoms are our lifeline, and it is good that there is no GST on them. But now, they are saying that napkin prices will go up. I don’t understand GST… but already, clients are less… some girls may not be keen on using napkins, and make do with cloth to save money,” said a sex worker. Meanwhile, the bank plans to hold talks with companies to ensure that the price of subsidised condoms comes down even further. The bank procures condoms (lowest category) for 28 paisa each and sell the same for 30 paisa each. At present, the bank supplies 7,50,000 condoms per month on an average to sex workers in Sonagachi. Established in 1995 with a working capital of just Rs 30,000, the bank now does yearly business of Rs 30 crore. In 2015- 2016, it disbursed educational worth Rs 7 crore to sex workers. Besides three computerised branches at Sonagachi, Kalighat in Kolkata and Dinhata in North Bengal, the bank has 26 collection centres across 28 red-light areas of Bengal.