Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s remark that prostitution and human trafficking had substantially reduced as an effect of demonetisation has left India’s largest red light area seething. A prominent sex workers’ organisation with its headquarters in Sonagachi has called the statement “insensitive, anti-poor and anti-women”.
“There are thousands of sex workers in India who were hit hard following notebandi. Clients dropped, they had no money. It was a harrowing time for them to feed themselves and their family. How can the minister be ignorant of their plight? He is insensitive to marginalised sections like sex workers,” said Bharati Dey, chief mentor of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Samiti, India’s largest network of sex workers.
Durbar, a community-based organisation, is a collective of over 65,000 sex workers. There are over 1,30,000 sex workers in West Bengal, spread across 32 red light areas. Sonagachi itself is home to 18,000 sex workers. Members of Durbar said their clients dropped to one third after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the note ban on November 8 last year. The move hit them hard, as they only deal in cash. However, client flow was now slowly returning to normalcy, the organisation said. “Suddenly we had no cash. We had to pay rent to house owners, send money to family, pay for our children’s healthcare and education. Imagine the plight of sex workers in the districts where they earn Rs 100 to Rs 200 per client,” said Dey, a former sex worker herself.
“Has prostitution stopped because of notebandi? The remark is anti-women, anti-poor. Had he spoken about rehabilitation, I could have understood. It was a kind of economic oppression on sex workers, who fend for their family and children. Is the central government trying to hit at their ability to maintain themselves, earn for their family? Is it right to push sex workers to the brink by such a move and then highlight it as a positive side of demonetisation? Sex workers are also human beings and citizens of this country,” said Smarajit Jana, chief advisor of Durbar.
“Most of the girls could not sent money home and some were forced to accept banned notes. Some were duped into accepting banned notes,” Jana added.
At Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Society Ltd, the country’s oldest co-operative bank managed by and for sex workers (run by Durbar), deposits dropped from about Rs 400,000 a day before November 8 last year, to about Rs 70,000 – Rs 100,000 in the following months. However, in the past couple of months, the bank has recovered and is working at a normal pace.
Just after the note ban, sex workers lined up to withdraw money and the bank was forced to limit withdrawals to Rs 4,000 a week for each account holder.