At the entrance to the office of the Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee, or simply Durbar (the word means ‘unstoppable’ in Bengali), on the periphery of Sonagachhi, Kolkata’s principal red-light district, a large-screen TV set telecasts an India-New Zealand one-day game. A few men and women sit scattered in front of it, while others bustle around with files and papers, filling the three-storey building with activity. On the face of it, it’s business as usual, as Durbar office bearers prepare minutes of their latest meeting, and discuss a meet in Siliguri later this month.
Among those office bearers are women like Bisakha Laskar, Rekha Roy and Santwana Das, sex workers who are also an anti-trafficking programme coordinator, joint secretary, and treasurer with Durbar, respectively. The organisation they belong to is a forum -under the umbrella of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) – of 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal, which lists as its mission the “political objective of fighting for recognition of sex work as work and, of sex workers as workers”. And while the work continues, Bisakha just about sums it up: “Which business hasn’t suffered the effects of recession? How can we be immune to it?”
Bharati Dey, programme director of Durbar, says she and her staff have not accepted their salaries from NACO for the past seven months in protest against a “pay cut”, and says NACO has cited a shortage of World Bank funds as reason.
Despite that, however, sex workers and Durbar office bearers admit that, at least in Sonagachhi, the effects of the recession are too recent for them to quote in terms of numbers. What they have noticed, though, is that the number of free condoms given away from the district’s customer service cell (set up to check “exploitation” by police, local goons, customers, and the sex workers themselves) has steadily gone down over the past month, as has the sale of cosmetics and other fancy items from Durbar’s Usha Cooperative Society outlet. Dey points out that daily collections of the micro-credit section of the cooperative society have fallen, and loan recovery work has suffered.
At the field level, as it were, Rekha talks about having to wait well past midnight for that one extra customer, because “I have to make sure no one else takes my place”, and also because the majority of her regular clients now visit her twice a week instead of four times, for instance, and the uncertainty over jobs and businesses has swept across all the social profiles to which her clients belong. Santwana and Bisakha agree that a growing number of clients now ask them for “credit”, and that they accede to the requests (or not) depending upon the client involved. “We have to keep the goodwill going,” Bisakha explains.
However, this picture is only that of the organised sector. By Dey’s reckoning, Durbar has covered just about 40 per cent of the city’s professional sex workers – spread primarily across Sonagachhi and Kalighat – while the others are still working for “babus, pimps, agents, and malkins. We’re trying to bring them under Durbar, but it will take a while”.
Meanwhile, as the state’s industrial scenario grows ever more bleak, and an increasing number of businesses move out of the city, Rekha wonders why, instead of desperately inviting fresh industrial units that will never set up shop, the state government makes no attempt to re-open those that have closed down. “That way, we would get a few extra clients, and I wouldn’t have to worry about paying my daughter’s school fees,” she says.
None of the women, however, are actively considering moving out of the city. Those of them who have on occasion emigrated, claims Bisakha, almost always return to their roots. So Durbar’s work will go on. Top of the agenda is the opening of a research and training centre that offers “family counselling” for a small fee. “For a long time, we’ve been counselling men and women on their domestic problems,” says Bisakha. “We’ve explained to plenty of women that gender is an accident of birth and they shouldn’t suffer unjust marriages in silence. So we thought, why not do it properly?” Why not indeed. And in these recession-hit times, what better than a little extra income?