Days after the nationwide lockdown was announced, sex workers at Sonagachi, Asia’s biggest red-light area located in Kolkata, realised that the empty lanes in their neighbourhood meant no wages and spelt doom for those who were retired had physical disabilities.
Around 8000 sex workers live and work in Sonagachi and the adjoining bylanes of Sethbagan and Rambagan in North Kolkata, and for the duration of the lockdown – which began on March 25 and continued till June 15 – their work, and ability to earn, came to a grinding halt.
In another part of the 300-year-old city, Dipali Bhattacharya, a retired principal of the Government College of Art and Craft, her friend Aditi Roy Ghatak, a veteran journalist and activist, and other friends understood the implications of the lockdown on vulnerable groups who depend on a daily income to feed themselves and their families. What followed, they said, was an experience of a lifetime, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the past two months, the group has distributed food and essential items like sanitary napkins, not only among residents of Sonagachi and south Kolkata’s smaller red light pocket in Kalighat, but also slum dwellers, migrants returning to their home state of West Bengal, and villagers in the South and North 24 Parganas and Hooghly districts.
“We were looking for a supplier of glove and masks for distributing these among people when we came across an inter-state helpline run by Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, former Kolkata mayor and member of the Rajya Rabha. We joined his team, and soon, along with some (other) members of the helpline, started our initiative ‘Ektu Din’ (Give A Little),” said Bhattacharya.
The former mayor had formed a team of lawyers and social workers in April to run a helpline for migrant workers stranded in other states and enable their return home.
The efforts by Give a Little mattered. On May 17, academicians from Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School released their findings of a study called Modelling the Effect of Continued Closure of Red-Light Areas on COVID-19 Transmission in India, which stated that Indians were at a much lower risk of getting Covid-19 if red light areas are kept closed after the lockdown, until an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 is developed.
According to the National Aids Control Organization (NACO), there are over 637,500 sex workers in India, and over 500,000 customers visit the red-light areas daily. The study showed that if the red-light areas started operating, the disease would spread extremely fast and infect a very high percentage of sex workers and customers.
If red-light areas are kept closed following the lifting of lockdown, there can be a delay in the peak of Covid-19 cases by 36 days in Kolkata, the study estimated. While the science behind the study was sound, it did not account for the deep economic crisis that the sex workers had been plunged into.
Though Kolkata has emerged from the lockdown, business continues to remain tepid at Sonagachi, residents said.
“Our business is badly affected and it has become very difficult to feed our children and the elderly who cannot move out. Basic groceries and hygiene products are a great help,” one of the residents, who did not wish to be named, said.
“A resident, Moti Sur, did a quick survey and identified 250 people in need of help. Sur knows the area and the residents for years. There was no opposition from the police. They usually never stop charity work,” said Indira Kanjilal, an editor of a business magazine, and member of the core team.
Sur took into account how many children and old persons were there in each household, as well as kept track of those who were extremely poor or unwell.
Around five volunteers visited Sonagachi six times, each time with 250 kits comprised five kilos of rice, two kilos of flour, one kilo of lentils, besides salt and oil. All the volunteers worse masks as they went into the lanes, and the women would come out and collect it from them to maintain effective physical distance.
“Packing rice, dal, cooking oil and other items in every packet and distributing these among residents of Sonagachi was not easy. More than 10,000 women live there. It was beyond our means to help them all,” Kanjilal said.
Then Cyclone Amphan hit the coast of West Bengal on May 20, leaving 98 dead and a million people displaced.
“Friends and acquaintances started donating funds the moment we spread the word on social media. Our work increased manifold after Cyclone Amphan ravaged south Bengal districts. So far we have helped around 10,000 people,” Bhattacharya estimated.
“Our supporters have funded us to help everybody; from villagers in the Sunderbans to rag-pickers at Dhapa dumping ground in Kolkata. Help has come from across the world,” said Roy Ghatak.
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