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The Tellers Of Sonagachi
If bad news travels fast, good news certainly doesn't. In recent years, the Durbar Mahila Samannay Committee (dmsc) has brought about major improvements in the lives of Bengal's sex workers. Yet, most people in the City of Joy know little about its work and, more importantly, couldn't care less. This is painfully brought home to visitors looking for the dmsc office in North Calcutta, on the fringes of the red light district. Routine queries generate polite but derisive counters from the locals ("What did you say the address was? Oh, I see...an office, you say [suppressed smirk]? No doubt...people come here on official business only, you know...OK, now take the first right turn and...").
Fortunately, the ambience in the Durbar Family office off Chittaranjan Avenue is less snide. One steps into a different world, an oasis of understated efficiency against a backdrop of chaos. There are any number of sex workers here, ranging from the hardened ones to kids barely out of their teens. The women confidently look you in the eye as they answer your questions, a far cry from the furtive whispered backstreet conversations. Unknown to the mostly ignorant locals, a quiet social revolution is happening here. The key to the women's newfound resilience lies in organisational power and financial independence. Which is exactly what the dmsc has given them. It has done something unique by South Asian standards, set up the first-ever bank for sex workers, run by the Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Society Limited (umscl).
The first efforts on this were made earlier but the bank could only be launched in 1995, as the state authorities withheld permission on legal grounds. "They didn't know how to react. Here was a bank that had on its board 13 sex workers as directors. Off the record, officials told us that they did not recognise sex workers as a distinct category, nor was there anything in existing provisions to enable the inclusion of such a category. They suggested that the women approach them as housewives but we did not agree. Later, Forward Bloc leader Saral Deb, then a minister in the Left Front government, helped us. The government made arrangements to recognise this category. Finance minister Ashim Dasgupta also helped out. The bank now has 2,300 account holders and Rs 55 lakh by way of capital," says Dr Mrinal Dutta, programme director, Project Sonagachi, another dmsc initiative. With this one major step, the sex workers were able to break the triple whammy the moneylenders, the 'malkins' and local thugs and the police had exerted on the hapless women for ages. "Would you believe it, if a girl received Rs 100 by way of a loan from a local dada, the going interest rate would be fixed at Rs 2 a day, or Rs 750 a year—and yet the principal was not deemed repaid. This is the sort of exploitation they had to face," says social worker Tapash Sur. A recent case was that of Minu, who had to spend a fortnight in hospital for an operation. There being no money at home, she borrowed Rs 100 from a lender who charged Rs 1,500 annually as interest.
No wonder that for twenty-something girls like Mithu Das and Soma Sinha, the bank has given the promise of a new life. Both have accounts in nationalised banks. Yet they prefer the umsc Bank. Why? "Interest rates in cooperative bank deposits are marginally higher and repayment terms less stringent," says Soma, who had taken loans for house repairs and other personal requirements, which she repaid in instalments. Mithu had taken a loan to ensure her brother's education.
There are other subtler reasons why the girls prefer to operate through the cooperative bank than elsewhere. "To be an account holder here, you have to be a sex worker, or a relative," explains Mithu. Obviously, they enjoy a measure of dignity and acceptability here that they or their relatives would not receive elsewhere.
The bank has daily, monthly and thrift fund deposit facilities, all designed to ensure a secure future for account holders.
Dr Dutta says the society's plans got a headstart through the initiatives of Dr Smarajit Jana, who was associated with Project Sonagachi—targeting aids awareness and control among the sex workers in Sonagachi, Calcutta's biggest red light district. The unceasing efforts of the society ensured that only under five per cent of the 60,000 sex workers in Bengal were found hiv positive recently. "This is not a bad performance. Just look at the other states..." says Dr Dutta.
The bank staff also thank Dr Ashok Mitra, the irascible former state finance minister, for his crackdown on the mushrooming fly-by-night chit funds.
The society does not interfere otherwise, apart from ensuring the women's financial security and driving home through ceaseless campaigns the necessity of using condoms and observing certain medical precautions. It has 66 branches and a membership of around 50,000 women in Bengal. On occasion, it has even organised blood tests for the sex workers, by way of hiv surveillance schemes. For their children, it has set up a cultural wing—Komal Gandhar. It also organises seminars and melas where foreign participants from Asian and other countries are invited to speak.
The society has done a lot to restore to these unfortunate souls a measure of honour and dignity. However, it still has its work cut out; reaching out to the more unlucky call girls in the districts and, above all, combating the blinkered prejudice that dominates society's perception of these women.