In a quiet corner of the Nalban Food Park in Salt Lake’s Sector-V, a group of women are whispering excitedly as they put on their gloves and disposable caps to learn the art of filleting fish. Aged between 30-40 years of age, they are among 30 sex-workers who have come from Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red light area, to find new avenues, and perhaps a stable source of income.
The women have signed up for a workshop on methods to cut various kinds of fish, a Bengali staple, which will be supplied to various food pavilions across Kolkata during the upcoming Durga Puja festival.
Govinda Das, their middle-aged teacher, demonstrates the right technique to handle knives, warning the women that a small lapse in attention could hurt them. Within moments, Dipti*, 33, nicks her thumb while slicing a fillet of Basa. While the trainers rush to attend to her wounds, she cranes her neck to watch Govinda work, even as she winces in pain. Within moments, she is back at the table, ready to cut the Basa with a bandaged thumb. “This will not deter me from learning something that could give me a better opportunity in life,” she says, smiling.
Under Govinda’s tutelage, the women are sweating it out almost 6 hours a day. Their stipend depends on the variety of fish and the quantity. Beaming as he points to a pile of perfect filets, Govinda, who has been in this profession for over 25 years, says, “I have already prepared fillets for 200 kg of fish. Now I’m working with them to show them how it’s done.” He claims that with time and expertise, anyone can get that much work done to increase one’s daily income. Shefali*, 38, who began training on September 8, overhears and says, “I do almost 20-25 fish per day now.”
As part of their training, the woman are also learning how to measure the slices and pack them to be shipped to various outlets. Depending upon the fish, they can earn between Rs 10-20 per kg, thereby giving them a scope to make Rs 1,000 a day. But that will take time, says Govinda. As of now, they are getting Rs 150 a day, along with a travelling allowance of Rs 50. Free lunch is also provided at the training site.
While 42-year-old Komala* is elated with this opportunity, many others who had initially signed up have not turned up, due to which the organisers are worried. “When I was asked if I would like to learn about cutting fish, I was extremely happy. Finding a good and respectable income, not having to be secretive about where I go to work every day, is a big relief,” she says, adding that she doesn’t mind working while everyone enjoys their holidays.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Kabita Biswas, mediator between the sex-workers and the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), which works for the welfare of sex workers in the state, explains the varying turnout. “A few girls feel the stipend is low. It’s Durga Puja and everyone wishes to earn a little extra. Some of them make more than Rs 500 or Rs 600 a day. With almost half the day gone at the site and the time spent in travelling from their home to the park, it is not a total win-win situation. They don’t get any bonus, and now, in the days running up to Pujas, they are not very comfortable earning less. Most are very interested in the initiative and are keen to get trained, some are shying away as it means a cutback in their daily income. A few girls have told me that they want to come, but after Puja.”
Dr Smarajit Jana, chief advisor of DMSC, says, “We have already talked to the fishery department about the price. They are paying our workers more, and this is just during the training period. Once they are fully trained, they will earn more.”
Traditionally, sex-workers are an integral part of Durga Puja, as soil from their locality is mixed with that used to create idols of the goddess. But with this initiative, these women are hoping to create a new tradition.
*Names of sex workers have been changed to protect their identities*