When the lockdown was announced in India, the uncertainties faced by almost every marginalized section were stressed upon; the migrant laborers, the daily wagers, the residents of Dharavi in Mumbai, apart from those rendered unemployed due to the pandemic.

It wasn't until much later after the lockdown or till recently when a survey brought to light the plight of sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata, that many of those on the sidelines of the socio-economic landscape were spared a thought.

Tikli and Lakshmi bomb
A still from Tikli and Lakshmi bomb. Representational image

A shocking majority of sex workers in Asia's largest red-light area of Sonagachi have fallen into the debt trap, finds a new survey. Conducted by an NGO Anti Human Trafficking Organisation, the survey throws open some unsettling facts highlighting how the pandemic has affected the lives of sex workers in Sonagachi. Since March, they have been out of business and the pandemic has pushed 89 percent of sex workers in the area back into the vicious circle of poverty and debt and the associated slavery that often comes with being a debtor.

The survey further reveals how post-pandemic, 73 percent of the sex workers have contemplated leaving the trade but cannot do so because debts have pushed them back into the vicious circle of exploitation. The majority of those under debt have taken loans from the informal sector comprising, money lenders, brothel owners, pimps, local goons, thus making themselves vulnerable at the hands of such creditors.

The largest red light area in Asia

Sonagachi is home to around 7,000 residential sex workers. About 98 percent of the sex workers were contacted for the survey.

"Piled up in huge debts, they have nowhere to go. Even though the lockdown is now lifted, the women cannot carry on work due to the fear of contagion. Now is the time for the state government to intervene and help them and carve an alternative plan," said Tapan Saha, National Youth President of Anti Human Trafficking Organisation. He has submitted the report to the state social welfare department.

Volunteers of Women Coordination Committee pack condoms for distribution among prostitutes in the Sonagachi redlight area of Kolkata.Reuters file

While there is a cooperative bank run by sex workers, but many still prefer borrowing money from the informal sector route as they don't require any papers. Such is the taboo and handicap of working in the area that many of the women don't have their names registered, or any official id or photograph.

The survey suggests that now might be a good time to rescue the sex workers and redirect them into an alternate source of livelihood. Therefore, the policymakers, NGOs and state government authorities should help get access to easy credit, collateral-free micro-finance opportunities.

Reportedly, on being contacted, State Women and Child Development Minister Sashi Panja feigned ignorance of the survey but said that if the sex workers write to them, the matter can be looked into.