FOR Reeta Ray, a sex worker in Kolkata’s red-light area of Sonagachi, there was a time when escape from the control of her “malkin” (madam) and the clutches of a ruthless moneylender was an almost impossible prospect. It was the early 2000s and she had just come into the profession. In her naivete, she had entrusted her daily earnings to her malkin for safekeeping under the assurance that she would have the money back whenever she required it. But when the time came, a crafty trap awaited her.
“When I wanted to visit my home, the malkin bought new clothes for members of my family, but did not give me any money. I was upset and I joined the house of another malkin and there too I realised I was being swindled,” Reeta told Frontline. The new madam also did not give Reeta the money she earned; instead she made her open an account with a moneylender of her choice. Reeta fell into the trap. “I had to borrow Rs.2,000, and I ended up paying Rs.20,000 after a year,” she said.
She was saved from the vicious cycle of debt when her first madam returned her full amount on the condition that she come back and work for her again. With that amount Reeta could clear her debt with the moneylender.
Reeta’s case is representative of the predicament most of the women working in Sonagachi and other red-light areas of the State faced. She was relatively fortunate; there are those who are still repaying small, old debts and are, in their old age, left with less than what they started with.
However, the situation has changed in the past two decades, particularly in Sonagachi, one of the largest red-light districts of Asia. The women are no longer helpless victims of an age-old exploitative system. Today, the sex workers of the area talk about buying their own houses, educating and providing for their children, and being able to afford the wedding expenses of their daughters. The catalyst for this change has been the Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society, which essentially functions as a bank run by sex workers and exclusively for sex workers.
The idea of a financial institution for sex workers came about in 1995 with the establishment of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a rights organisation of sex workers, founded by the public health scientist Smarajit Jana. Usha was designed to be the economic wing of the organisation. “The idea of setting up Usha came to me while talking to some sex workers. I realised that hardly any of them kept any money in the bank. There were essentially two reasons for that. First, it was practically impossible for them to come up with documents such as proof of address or identity; and second, social prejudice due to the stigma attached to a sex worker made it very uncomfortable and difficult for her to interact with bank officials,” Jana told Frontline. Though most of the sex workers operate from rented houses, they are not given any rent receipts, as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act clearly prohibits the hiring of a place by sex workers or renting out a place to sex workers for the purpose of pursuing their profession.
There was little option for sex workers other than turning to a moneylender if they needed a loan. In Sonagachi, the moneylenders have different systems of loans, each as exploitative as the other. “The moneylender would extend the loan immediately without the requirement of any papers, but the minimum rate of interest on a loan would be about 300 per cent per annum,” said Jana. A sex worker would be spending her whole life just paying back the interest on the loan.
Setting up a cooperative society run by sex workers was no mean task. The first big obstacle was a clause in the Cooperative Societies Act that stipulated that the members of a proposed cooperative society must have “good moral character”. After months of debating over the issue, the solution came when the then Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government of West Bengal made a fresh piece of legislation to drop the clause from the Act. In June 1995, the Usha Cooperative came into being with 13 sex workers as its members and a corpus of a few thousand rupees. After 20 years, Usha’s membership has increased to 20,000 and it has a corpus of around Rs.19 crore. It is run by a board of nine directors, all of whom are sex workers.
Usha faced its real problems after it came into being. The most serious hurdle it had to overcome was the resistance from within the society of Sonagachi. The moneylenders and the madams, who for so long controlled the lives of the women of the region, knew that financial independence would weaken their hold over the women, and they were not willing to let go easily. They relied on the age-old tactics of intimidation and violence.
Abeda Begum, a sex worker for more than 25 years, who has been working with Usha right from its inception, recalled the problems faced in the early days of operations. “The babus (pimps) and the malkins made it very difficult for us to reach the girls. We would have to meet them secretly to tell them of the advantages of joining the cooperative, and secretly arrange for their membership. Today, the girls have enough confidence not to care about the orders of the malkins and the babus,” said Abeda. In certain houses in Sonagachi, the madams had placed express orders to throw hot water on Usha workers when they came looking for membership.
However, it was not long before the DMSC successfully broke the insidious nexus between the madams, the pimps and the moneylenders. The advantages of being a member, including lower rate of interest on loans (10 per cent in Usha), the availability of various schemes (educational schemes for sex workers’ children, and so on) and, most importantly, financial independence, began to attract more and more women into Usha’s fold.
One of the most popular schemes of Usha is the Daily Collection Scheme, in which 28 workers collect from sex workers on a daily basis whatever they can give at that time, howsoever meagre the amount may be. “This is a form of forced savings by which a sex worker can set aside an amount for a rainy day. This scheme has helped increase our membership immensely,” Santanu Chatterjee of the DMSC told Frontline .
The single most important contribution of Usha has been the societal change it has brought about in the 20 years of its existence in the red-light regions. It has served to liberate the women from an exploitative society, empowered them to determine their own destinies, and given them an identity. During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Usha’s documents were made acceptable for a sex worker to obtain her voter card. This was a milestone in the cooperative’s history.
“The bank transformed our lives completely. With financial independence we got our own independence. We could now leave a malkin if she did not treat us fairly and that made them scared, for they realised that if they did not change, they would be losing their girls,” said Sritara Das, a sex worker in Sonagachi.
Though exploitation persists in their society, the women agree that their lot has improved since the bank came into their lives. “We had no say in our lives. Even if we were sick, the malkin would force us to entertain customers. We were not allowed to mix freely with outsiders. If I went out with someone on a date—over time some customers would become friends—we would be charged by the hour for the duration of our stay outside the house,” said Reeta. Sritara remembers being charged Rs.300 once for going out to the cinema. The scenario is not so bleak any more. Sritara has managed to educate her daughter and even bought a place for herself outside the city. “This would not have been possible for me if Usha were not there; and there are many girls like me who have benefited,” she said.
The change can also be perceived in the mindset of the madams. Rajmoni Singh, a successful madam who runs an establishment of around 40 women, also realised the benefits of Usha and became involved with it from its early days. “I insist that all my girls open an account in Usha and not go to any moneylender. I myself have benefited from this bank,” she told Frontline .
However, the practice of going to moneylenders still exists in Sonagachi, but the bank protects the borrower from falling into the debt trap. Recently, Sritara had to borrow Rs.5 lakh from a moneylender, and had to pay him Rs.15,000 a month. “I have applied for a loan from Usha, so I can repay the kabuliwala [moneylender] in one go,” she said.
The Usha Cooperative will be celebrating its 20th year in 2015, and the sex workers who are involved with the project have been planning a celebration. Though in just 20 years the organisation has managed to spread its influence to all 32 red-light areas in West Bengal—in varying degrees of success—the members feel that there still is a lot of work to be done. “We have only covered one-third of the sex workers in the State,” said Santanu Chatterjee. Out of the total of around 65,000 sex workers in the State, around 21,000 have so far joined the Usha Cooperative. Last year, Usha was given an award by the West Bengal government for being the “best run cooperative” in the State.