In a debt trap, the Pandemic forces Sexworkers of Sonagachi into a Vicious Circle of Loans

This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sonagachi wears a deserted look without its usual bustle of activity. The Covid pandemic followed by strict lockdowns at regular intervals since March 2020 has forced all trades on the lanes and by lanes of Sonagachi to close. There are no paan shops or the local tea stalls operating on the lanes. And behind the closed doors of the dinghy tenements that exist cheek by jowl, all trades has stopped too, crushing the inhabitants under a huge burden of debt, as they have loaned from money lenders, house owners and pimps to survive this crisis.

Sonagachi is Asia’s largest red light district with an estimated 7,000 sex workers, which operates from the dingy, congested multi storied brothels in the locality. Located in Kolkata, India, the place has been a centre of human trafficking for sexual exploitation and crimes of sexual violence for ages, but things are changing with the intervention of NGOs.

For Putul (named changed), life in Sonagachi has altogether changed in the last one and half years with no client to serve, no work, forcing her to survive only on relief that she receives in the form of dry rations including rice, dal and potatoes, provided mostly by NGO’s and the government at regular intervals.

In order to meet other expenses such as house rent, electricity and fuel, she has taken loans from a local moneylender depositing her valuables. Far from paying back her loans, she now stares at the prospect of loan bondage as she exhausts her loaned money and there is still no avenue of earning.

Sitting on the steps of her rented one room house, Putul says “I have taken money from a money lender by keeping my valuables, including some jewellery as deposit and took around INR 20,000 rupees last year. I, still paid back the loan to get my jewelleries back. My savings are also getting exhausted with daily expenses. If I can’t pay back the loan, he will take away my valuables and again I have to think of loan to survive.

Such is the situation in Sonagachi that getting a loan is difficult, as money lenders are also feeling insecure while giving loan, so they keep something valuable in return to lend the cash.

Sangita, daughter of a sexworker, who has completed her Masters in Social Work and now working with a private concern as an executive and lives in Sonagachi. She too tells similar tales of debt. “Sexworkers here are taking money from money lender at high interest rates now and most of them are failing to pay back. Interest rates in this informal sector of loans and debts have always been preposterous. In the pre pandemic days, the interest rate was almost 100 percent. If a Sexworker took a loan of rupees 10,000 from a money lender for a period of two and half months, she had to return Rs 18,000 within three months. Rs 8,000 is the interest paid. She also has an option to repay an amount everyday, which is around Rs 200 everyday for three months. Now, with all their savings exhausted and with mounting debt, the sexworkers are finding it difficult to return the money and survive.”

Some young sexworkers like Pinki are trying out new ways to solicit clients but that too is not quite profitable. Leaning on a wall by the side of the lane that connects Chittaranjan Avenue, Pinki says, “We are in a very difficult situation with no client, no earning. We cannot even go back home because of the lockdown. Sometimes, some of my clients call me to entertain them over phone, I do, and sometimes they send money online, sometimes they don’t. On some occasions they get our phones recharged so that they can call again. That is not earning”.

Living in a state with a woman as its chief minister, there are a number of government schemes for women but somehow, they seem to elude the sexworkers.

Some of the sexworkers claim to have benefited from the schemes but most of them are in denial. Santona who has been in Sonagachi for last 10 years, says she has not got any benefit of the government schemes, “Our condition is very bad because of the lockdown. People are full of fear, even our customers fear to come. Price of petrol, gas and kerosene oil are increasing every day, we are trying very hard to survive. The government is not giving us anything, what schemes you are talking about? No schemes are for us apart from 2 kgs of rice, 2 kgs of wheat. There is no money, no help, only one time ration. Durbar, an NGO for sexworkers and others are giving.

Sangita, contradicts this statement and says, “We are getting the help of various schemes of the government say for example old age pension. Many of the old sexworkers are getting pension but the amount is too low. It is very difficult for a sex worker to run her family. An aged sexworker can avail the monthly old age pension which is Rs 700/- which is too little.”

Earlier, even this was not available to sexworkers as they were vastly ignorant of the schemes. But now with the efforts of several movements for the rights of the sexworkers and with the help of Durbar Mahila Samannay Committee, a collective of sex workers sexworkers they have now been made beneficiaries of various government schemes. The local MLA Sashi Panja and our local councilor Sunanda Sarkar help the constituency. Many of them got their jabs initiated by the government, organized by Durbar. Sexworkers are priority because they come under the risk group.

As we pass through a lane in Sonagachi, we hear cries and fights from a building. An on looker said, such scuffles are routine these days with house owners threatening tenants to leave for nonpayment of rent. With Durbar’s intervention, some house owners agreed not to charge rent from their tenants for the first three months of the first wave of Covid last year, but during the second wave no such arrangement has worked.

Devi (name changed), came to Sonagachi at a very early age 20 years back, leaving her poor family to earn something for herself and her family back home. Since then Sonagachi has been her home and workplace. She also has children a boy and a girl, who now stay with her brothers back in village.

But the last one and half year has proved to be ominous and the quest for survival is getting more challenging day by the day. Even a year back she had a comparatively good life, with regular customers and earnings. It helped her to pay for the education of her son and daughter.

But now she has not been able to send them any money. As for her own survival she is struggling every day. Unpaid house rent is accumulating every month, with savings exhausted in past months she doesn’t know how she will pay back her loans.

As she says, “At some point I have to pay my land lady once the lockdown gets over and normalcy resumes. But we are not getting clients and by the time we do, it’s going to be a huge debt burden.

Putul, Pinki, Santona and Devi are not alone in their plight. There are plenty such others at Sonagachi, who are getting trapped in debt burdens. According to a survey conducted by Anti Human Trafficking Organization, an NGO that fights against the evil of trafficking and violation of human rights, 89% of sex workers in Sonagachi has fallen into debt bondage during the pandemic.

The survey reveals that, over 81% of them have taken loans from the informal sector, mainly from money lenders, brothel owners, pimps, making themselves more vulnerable to further exploitation. 73% of the sex workers want to leave sex trade, but are not able to do so because of the huge loans they have taken to survive the pandemic. About 98% of sex workers of Sonagachi participated in the survey, claims the organization.

Over 93% of sex workers in the survey admitted that they fear for their lives but have no other means of survival and have to somehow earn money to pay back the surmounting debt. The uncertainty of the future continues to haunt them.

The dynamics of a red light area is such that it does not allow a majority of sex workers to have their own identity. Hence, with no official proof or documents, it is difficult for them to obtain any kind of credit loan from formal banks and financial institutions as it involves lots of paperwork and background clearance.

Durbar, the collective of sexworkers has established a cooperative, Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Ltd, run by the sexworkers for the sex workers. It is a micro-credit banking system where sex workers can have an account and deposit a certain amount every month against which they can avail loans.

Santanu Chatterjee, the Manager of Usha Cooperative, says, “We are not able to give any loan to the members since last year, as they are very uncertain about how to pay back the amount. Even in the middle of pandemic some accounts were opened but not for credit or money transaction but the membership of USHA cooperative or ID Card from Durbar, which helps them avail various schemes of the government including ration, food coupons etc.”

Bishaka Laskar, President, Durbar

The sex workers are withdrawing all their savings as they need money to buy essentials including medicine and other needs and are also sending money to their relatives back in villages. But once the money in the bank is exhausted, they will sink”, said Bishakha Laskar, President of Durbar.

Citizenship documentation is also a required to avail government schemes. Mahashweta Mukherjee, Advocacy Officer with Durbar says, “A Sexworker if she declares herself as a Sexworker, she is entitled to get ration card and till she gets the ration card an immediate food coupan must be issued to them to ensure food security of the community as part of the marginalized section of the society.

Dr Sashi Panja

Dr Sashi Panja, Minister, Department of Women and Child development and Social welfare, Government of West Bengal, who is also the member of the legislative assembly from the area, said, “There is a scheme called ‘Muktir Aalo’ for those sexworkers who want to leave that profession and join mainstream. We train them in the field of arts and in the field of acting, as they have expressed their interest in acting in television serials etc. The is also skill training like making different kind of jewellery, rubber diyas etc. There were cafes operated by them in Alipur, Bikash Bhawan, Metiabruz, where they make and sell fruit juices and other simple snacks.”

Besides, sexworkers can avail Khadya Sathi, they also can be part of MNREGA scheme. However, the sexworkers do not want to be associated with these schemes because in normal times they earned a lot more than what the schemes offered,” said the minister.

Inspite of all the challenges these sexworkers prefer to be in Sonagachi. As Devi, says “We do not have any other option for work, even if we seek other job elsewhere, employer will only demand sex from us, followed by violence and therefore this place is safe and good. So, we cannot leave Sonagachi.

Report: Joydeep Dasgupta || Photo: Tarun Das

This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.