Coronavirus and the lockdown left the streets of the red-light area of Sonagachi, West Bengal's largest and busiest red-light area, deserted for more than two weeks (longest in the history of the area). It is particularly hard hit given that it is a contact job and the workers are not sure if clients are going to return anytime soon.
Sonagachi is the oldest and largest red-light area in Asia. Home to 8000 sex workers, who hail from various parts of the country, survive on daily pay and have high rents to pay. Some of them have children who need to be looked after.
The Art of Living's Project Udaan volunteers have reached out to the community of sex workers situated in Sonagachi with essentials. "There are no customers and the workers have nothing to eat.
200 sex workers benefited by the Art Of Living relief work
In phase one of relief work, around 200 sex workers have been benefited by the Art Of Living. We have provided dry ration and each pack includes 4 kg rice, 2 kg potato, 2 kg wheat flour, 500 gm lentils and 500 gm oil.
Not only this, but we will also make them aware of Coronavirus. We will make them understand and follow social distancing. Project Udaan is now trying to reach out to almost 500 sex workers, who are in distress due to the lockdown," says Arnab Acharjee, General Secretary of Project Udaan.
Art of Living's Project Udaan has been working for the welfare of the sex workers and their children in Sonagachi since 2012. In the time of distress, the foundation's volunteers were contacted for help in getting basic supplies.
A WhatsApp group of AOL volunteers jumped to action and raised Rs 1.5 lakh within a week. Post that, they had to arrange a ration and get the packets ready. All of this had to be done keeping social distancing and government guidelines in mind.
'There is no food, we can't approach anyone'
Shobha (name changed) shared her plight with the volunteers of Project Udaan, "There is no food. We can't approach anyone nor can we step out. When we get something, we make do with it. Rent is high and it hasn't been waived off in every house. We are in need and in gratitude for the help that the Art of Living Foundation is offering us."
The volunteers associated with Project Udaan are working towards managing ration and getting things lined up for phase two. Arnab Acharjee mentions that there are many people in need of help and Project Udaan intends to hand-hold the sex workers and their families till the Covid-19 crisis is over.
The sex workers, who hail from different parts of the country, can't go back until the trains/buses ply. They feel that being home would have ensured access to food. They are stuck now. The aware ones are also gripped with the fear of Covid-19 spreading like fire as 6-7 members live in a room. Most of them are focussing on immediate needs. They are unaware of what the future holds for them. Project Udaan intends to help them until they get back on their feet.
Background on Project Udaan and Arnab Acharjee's work:
In one of his earlier interviews, Arnab has been quoted as saying, "It is very difficult at times to make them believe that there is a better world out there, one with far more opportunities and that their kids need not stay in this profession."
From then to now, Arnab and other volunteers of Project Udaan have been able to develop a family-like bond with the members of Sonagachi for the sex workers to reach out to Art of Living Foundation's volunteers in this need of time.
The Art of Living Foundation's project Udaan has built a daycare centre for the children of the sex workers in 2014 for no child deserves to see their mothers go into a room with a client. These children were free and The Art of Living Foundation was determined to paint a different future for them.
In 2019, a residential home for these kids has been inaugurated and is awaiting a licence. They also have an evening coaching centre for these kids. From having to convince the workers to send their children in to now the workers lining up to make sure that their children go to the coaching centre. Project Udaan's commitment to Sonagachi and its members is an unspoken promise for a better future for these sex-workers and their children.