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No bank account or Aadhaar card, most sex workers in Mumbai won’t get financial aid

With the state making bank account and Aadhaar card mandatory to avail the direct benefit transfer, of the 14,000 estimated commercial sex workers in the city, the Mumbai District Aids Control Society (MDACS) - which is making a list of beneficiaries - has managed to come up with only 5,600 names for registration so far.

Volunteers busy preparing a list of sex workers to enlist them as beneficiaries. (Express photo)

A 40-year-old commercial sex worker, a resident of Kandivali, does not have a bank account or an Aadhaar card, making her ineligible for the scheme under which Maharashtra government will provide Rs 5,000 as monthly financial aid to sex workers of Mumbai from October till the Covid-19 pandemic is over.

She is not alone. With the state making bank account and Aadhaar card mandatory to avail the direct benefit transfer, of the 14,000 estimated commercial sex workers in the city, the Mumbai District Aids Control Society (MDACS) – which is making a list of beneficiaries – has managed to come up with only 5,600 names for registration so far.

End of October, the government had issued a government resolution (GR) directing that Rs 5,000 and 5-kg of dry ration will be provided as a monthly aid to sex workers following a Supreme Court directive. While no identity proof is needed to avail dry ration, to receive Rs 5,000 every month, sex workers must have bank accounts and Aadhaar cards.

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“Most sex workers are so poor they have no identification documents or the means to get one,” said the Kandivali resident, who has been borrowing money from her neighbours to pay rent. With most public and private sector banks unwilling to open zero balance accounts, many also have no money to open one.

In Nehru Nagar, a 37-year-old sex worker has no bank account. She had applied for an Aadhaar card three years ago but is yet to get it. “Every day is a struggle to survive,” she said.

Both women, due to lack of documents, have not been registered for the monthly financial aid.

Since one month, in the cramped Santacruz office of anti-trafficking NGO Aditi, 14 volunteers are working beyond office hours to help sex workers create bank accounts and generate Aadhaar card numbers. The lockdown has hit sex workers badly and this aid may be their only source of income for months to come.

At the office, a sex worker sits with a list of 30 others from Vile Parle. “None of them have a bank account,” she said. She had taken a loan of Rs 1 lakh from a local merchant after the pandemic began. “The loan is on 20 per cent interest. This is how sex workers are surviving,” she added.

Social worker Salma Ansari has been trying to create bank accounts for sex workers in vain. Last week, she took two sex workers to a Vile Parle-based Bank of Baroda branch. “The bank asked for a deposit of Rs 2,000 to open an account. The manager refused to lower the limit. The sex workers did not have that much cash so we returned,” Ansari said.

Dr Shrikala Acharya, additional project director at MDACS, said they can write referral letters to national banks to open free accounts if a sex worker approaches them with a complaint. “Our team is supporting all NGOs, but the process can take time,” she added.

Another impediment is resistance in divulging personal details. Arshi Memon, who works with sex workers in Bandra, said she has met many who are poor and out of work but still unwilling to give personal details for any scheme. “They refused to give bank account or Aadhaar card details. Many said their information can be misused. It is difficult to gain their trust,” she added.

Memon said that a few sex workers who did give their details have been waiting for a month for ration and money. “The delay in depositing funds into their accounts has discouraged others.”

When contacted, Secretary (Women and Child Development) Idzes Kundan said all districts have been directed to start disbursing the money and ration. “Soon, ration distribution will begin. We are trying to resolve various issues but sex workers need to understand that this GR is for their benefit,” she added.

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