In the heart of Mumbai’s red-light district of Kamathipura, a commercial sex worker in a blue saree, stood arms akimbo on Friday evening, her nose and mouth covered with a red handkerchief. She stood out among the many sex workers lined up on the bustling Shuklaji Street, awaiting customers, oblivious to the increased risks in their line of work, at a time that the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The women, most of them with smartphones, many with earphones plugged in, say they are aware that the virus has spread in India. They said they know that they need to keep washing their hands to protect themselves but they find the thought of ‘social distancing’ laughable.
“Touch nahi karenge toh kaise chalega (How will we work if we can’t touch)?” said a sex worker, pausing a video she was watching on her smartphone. She added that customers have dwindled over the last one week and stopping business essentially meant going without food for many of them.
Her friend, who hails from Kolkata, supports a family of five back home. She has a husband, incapacitated after a road accident, and four sons she sends money to from time to time. “I know it can spread from touching but what do you suggest we do? Die from the virus or die of starvation?”
“Usually, we would have four to five customers every night. We would wind up business by about 6 am but in the last week, hardly anyone has come. I don’t even have money to eat. Our regular customers have also not offered any monetary help,” said the woman, aged 38.
In his book Narcopolis, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, author Jeet Thayil described the Shuklaji Street as “a fever grid of rooms, boom-boom rooms, family rooms, god rooms, secret rooms that contracted in the day time and expanded at night”. Thayil wrote that a walk along the street that stretched from Mumbai Central to Grant Road, was “to tour the city’s fleshiest parts, the long rooms of sex and nasha”.
In the setting romanced by writers and filmmakers for decades, however, what emerges in the face of a contagious, life-threatening virus is a telling tale of neglect.
According to official records, there are about 4,500 registered sex workers who operate in Kamathipura, of which around a 1,000 are not residents of the area. In a trade that makes all these women vulnerable, the sex workers are yet to be visited or educated by civic or the state administrations.
Dr Shrikala Acharya, Additional Project Director, Mumbai District AIDS Control Society, said: “A special advisory will be issued for these families (of sex workers).” Acknowledging the plight of the sex workers, she added, “A medical camp will be organised in the locality for general health screening of these workers and their families.”
A young transgender sex worker stands dolled up at the mouth of the Shuklaji Street. She said she was not familiar with hand sanitisers. “Nobody came to tell us anything about how we should protect ourselves. But I saw on TV that we should wash our hands with Dettol.”
As the road snakes further towards the J J flyover, many sex workers are seen wearing flimsy, surgical masks in green, beige and black. They force some others to cover their mouths with the ends of their sarees. But customers are not asked where they’ve been or who they have come in contact with. At their business hour, the masks won’t matter.
Priti Patkar, co-founder and director of Prerana, an NGO that works in the red-light areas of Mumbai, said: “There is a lot of half-baked information. Our effort at this point is to ensure that you spread awareness in the community on ways to safeguard itself from coronavirus.”
Citing the sharp drop in footfall, Patkar observed that some of the community members have already returned home. Prerana also runs a night school for children from the community. In the last few days, many of the workers have not been sending their children to the school. Patkar claimed that school has been shut to visitors and the premises sanitised.
Patkar demanded that the government should ensure the food supply chain to the community members is secured during the disruption. She also demanded that the municipality should undertake a cleanliness drive in the locality.
Local Congress MLA Amin Patel said, “I have arranged for ration supplies to be distributed to these families. We are sending food supplies for 15 days in advance for the time being.”
He further said, “The police has been asked to crack down on outsiders who visit the district to seek these workers out. Safety of these workers, their families, and other citizens is top priority for now.” He added that in the long run he will make efforts to rehabilitate these workers in other jobs.
Varsha Kale, president of the Bar Girls Association, acknowledged that sex workers need to be educated about the perils of their trade at a time like this. “The government’s resources may be falling short in creating awareness among sex workers but even social workers and NGOs are pressed for resources at this time. Though I am sure social workers will take this up. Staying at home, however, is the biggest social work at this time.”
She said that about 3,000 women she is associated with include sex workers who are based in brothels, working through agents and independently, and those servicing clients in lodging and boarding facilities. “I have got calls from girls asking whether or not they should continue with the business because it is their bread and butter. Some have also asked if they should leave Mumbai and go on a holiday.”
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