Now 63, she has spent four decades in the lanes of India’s largest red-light area, Sonagachi of Kolkata. She still lives there but also has an apartment near Ruby General Hospital off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. Her son runs a grocery shop and owns a car, which operates with Olacabs; her daughter is married. All of this has been possible because of loans she took — and repaid — from a unique cooperative bank inside the red-light area.
Then there is another woman, now 36, who has been a sex worker since she was 15. She has been able to marry off three sisters and repair her house. She got loans five times, the last one of Rs 70,000, which she is currently paying back in instalments.
Busy hands work on computers, receive pass-books and hand over money in three rooms on the second floor of 12/5 Nilmoni Mitra Street, in a corner of Sonagachi. Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society, run by sex workers, started on June 1, 1995, with a capital of just Rs 30,000 and with just 13 sex workers as its members. Today, the bank deals with Rs 30 crore a year and has a membership of 30,932 sex workers from across the state. The bank works under the aegis of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), one of the country’s largest organisations for sex workers.
In 2016-2017, the bank gave out Rs 7.62 crore in loans to 7,231 sex workers, most of it for children’s education and housing. The bank survived demonetisation and even competition from private and nationalised banks.
“Local moneylenders charge 200% to 300% interest. Before the bank was set up, we had no other source of borrowing,” says the 63-year-old. “Now things have changed. I was the 146th member back then, when the didis came and told us about the bank. In those days, I used to save Rs 5 a day. I learnt how to save. I took loans for my daughter’s wedding, my apartment and for my son’s grocery shop. I repaid them all.”
A team of 38, many of them children of sex workers, move from door to door in 36 red-light areas across the state, collecting daily deposits. Each collector is paid Rs 3,000 to Rs 6,000 monthly. The bank has two computerised premises — in Sonagachi and a red-light area of Kalighat in Kolkata —and collection centres on the premises of DMSC-run HIV /STD clinics in other places.
It was a difficult start. The state cooperative department, according to those running the bank, had been unwilling to clear the bank because of a clause that “members have to have good moral character” — eventually waived by the government.
“It was very difficult initially. Apart from administrative hurdles, moneylenders threatened us at gunpoint,” says Smarajit Jana, DMSC chief mentor.
Sex workers also lacked the papers needed to open accounts. Many did not have even rent receipts, since house-owners were unwilling to enter into a contract. “Many got voter cards and PAN cards and opened accounts in other banks showing the passbook of the cooperative bank,” says Jana.
“Many of us didn’t know the importance of savings,” says the 36-year-old who married off three sisters. “Girls would often squander the money they made everyday on liquor. The bank solved a lot of problems. For instance, in the brothel we use changed names to hide our identities, and it is difficult later to get papers in our original names. In this bank, we just have to apply and we get papers in our real names, after verification.”
When demonetisation came, deposits crashed and withdrawals had to be limited to Rs 4,000 a week. “We asked private and nationalised banks we are associated with to help us out,” says the bank chairman, a former sex worker. “However, we collected Rs 2.63 crore in banned notes. Our members never had to stand in queue; we collected from door to door.” The chairman gets Rs 3,000 as honorarium and free stay and food wherever she goes on bank work. With loans, she has bought land and built a house in her village in East Midnapore.
The bank pays interest at 5% for savings accounts, 10.11% on recurring deposits and 10% on daily collections. For a daily collection account, Rs 5 is admission fee, with a deposit of another Rs 10. This makes a sex worker a member of the cooperative. The daily deposit can be as low as Rs 5 or Rs 10.
The bank also engages in social marketing of condoms and sanitary napkins among sex workers. “We sell condoms at 80 paise and a pack of three napkins at Rs 6. We buy these on subsidy, and also make a profit,” says Santanu Chatterjee, the bank’s finance manager.
“We also rent out properties. We have a 33-acre farm in Baruipur where cultivation and animal husbandry take place,” says Chatterjee. “We also invest in other banks.”
Every five years, the cooperative holds elections, conducted by officials of the state cooperative department, with sex workers and members choosing a nine-member board and a chairman.
In September 2016, an amendment in the bank’s constitution allowed women from other marginalised sections and self-help groups to open accounts. Only sex workers, however, have voting rights.