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“We need employment, not help,” Nagpur’s sex workers decry ban, barricading of area

Sex workers at Ganga Jamuna area of Nagpur on the occasion of Sex Workers Pride Day on September 14. | Picture by arrangement

Ganga Jamuna area of Nagpur in Maharashtra is the oldest Red Light area of the city and has always been bustling with people. In August last month, the area was sealed off by Nagpur Police and sex work was banned, citing an increase in child trafficking. Sex workers have protested the ban and sealing of the area arguing that the pandemic already had them in a very vulnerable spot with depleted income impacting their children’s future. 

Suchitra | TwoCircles.net 

NAGPUR – Nearly three hundred years ago, the ‘Ganga Jamuna’ area of Nagpur city in Maharashtra was set up for the army of Raja Khandoji Bhonsle, and sex workers have been living here since 1775. It’s the city oldest Red Light area. “Raja Khandoji Bhonsle helped people of our community back then to bring an idol of Lord Jagannath from Puri, and set up a temple here for us,” recalls Kiran Deshmukh, president of National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW).

The Ganga Jamuna area, which has always been bustling with people, was sealed off by Nagpur Police on August 15, citing an increase in child trafficking, invoking the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA). The Police banned sex work in the area. Fifteen of the sixteen entry points leading to Ganga Jamuna were blocked. At each of these access points, at least three police officers and a police vehicle outfitted with a CCTV camera can be seen standing guard day and night. Section 144 was imposed in August, which isn’t in effect anymore, and barricades have been lifted as well; but this has badly affected sales for these women.

Following the ban on sex work, thousands of sex workers in the area protested against the sealing of the area. Sex workers that TwoCircles.net talked with demanded reversal of the ban arguing that “ban not only impacts their work but has an adverse impact on their children and their future amid the pandemic.”

Kiran, a sex worker living with HIV, told TwoCircles.net that times have been very difficult for sex workers ever since Covid-19 struck their lives. “Social distancing is something that would never work in a profession like ours,” Kiran maintains.

Barricades in the Ganga Jamuna area of Nagpur. | Picture by arrangement

Before the pandemic, Deepa (name changed), a sex worker, would earn between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000 per month. She hasn’t made a rupee since March 2020, when Covid-19 imposed limitations and also scared away consumers. She is scared for her children and wonders what the future holds. “Both my children are in primary school and have online classes, and they have to share one phone because I cannot afford another one. Many times I haven’t been able to pay the phone bill in time for them to access mobile data for classes,” Deepa said.

“Customers have dropped by 80%. Before the lockdown, each worker had about ten customers, but that number has now been reduced to two. We are afraid that due to the curfew, this may all come to nought,” Rama (name changed), another sex worker living in the area said.

“With no running revenue, many sex workers would be saddled with debts during this period,” Deshmukh said. “Because we are not part of the banking industry, nor are our families, we are facing a future in which our only choice will be to turn to money lenders for loans,” she said.

Kavita (name changed), believes that the unplanned decision made by Nagpur’s police commissioner has had a negative impact on her life. She wants to keep running her business because it has provided her with a living. “Why weren’t we informed before the red light district was closed off? We are not going to be respected in the outside world, and we don’t want any other place or work. Why should we move away or stop the work we have done for years?”

Kavita’s daughter will graduate this year from a top college in Maharashtra. She is very proud of her daughter and claims that she would have gotten her admitted to another college but she couldn’t afford it because all of her savings got washed away during the pandemic and she didn’t even have enough to feed herself the whole year. “What can I say, my whole life has been disrupted by the virus,” she rues.

Supiya, a sex worker who has lived in Ganga Jamuna for more than a decade, claimed business had dried up and she had been unable to financially support her parents since March.

Sex workers throughout the world have lost their jobs, incomes, and houses as a result of repeated Covid-19 lockdowns. Many have faced violence and have been blamed for the spread of the virus.

“Sex workers have little resources and are stigmatized when they search for other jobs,” Kiran said. “They were asking for employment throughout the lockdown, but no one hired them.”

In September 2020, India’s Supreme Court ordered states to provide food to sex workers after a survey by a collective in five areas revealed that fewer than half of 120,000 sex workers had benefitted from a government food aid plan for the needy. NHRC took a U-turn on their announcement that sex workers should be given informal worker status and adopted a regressive outlook that would harm sex workers.

Many NGOs involved in the upliftment of sex workers have organized fundraisers for sex workers, even though many sex workers insist they need employment, not help.

Mamta stated that she was surviving on charity food handouts because she doesn’t have an Aadhaar card, and couldn’t access rations. “I need employment, not assistance,” she stated. “All of us (sex workers) are desperate here,” she continued. “The virus has reduced us to begging.”

NNSW organized a Sex Worker’s Pride on September 14 and talked about how important the recognition of sex worker’s right to work is. “Denying sex workers the dignity of being workers is to expose them to violence, deny them their rights and access to justice, and eventually rendering them vulnerable to exploitative practices. Organising as informal sector workers gives them the much-needed recognition, dignity and space to claim rights, access government support and access justice when faced with violence,” Kiran said. “We won’t leave Ganga Jamuna. It’s our home. We will fight for our right to work, especially after the pandemic has already taken so much from us.”