For Sonagachi sex workers, dignity is above politics

An old photo of Sonagachi sex workers attending a programme in Kolkata.

A sarcastic smile appeared on the face of Sonali Mondal (name changed), a sex worker residing in Kolkata’s Sonagachi when this correspondent asked what expectations she has from the Lok Sabha elections. Mondal although a resident of Sonagachi - the largest red light district in south Asia-for more than a decade - is yet to get a ration card.

“I have been running pillar to post just to get a ration card and you are asking me what I expect from the elections. Good joke!” Mondal told DH before she disappeared into a narrow bylane of Sonagachi.

She is just one of the about 11,000 sex workers of Sonagachi for whom the ongoing Lok Sabha elections have become just one more occasion getting showered with promises that never get fulfilled.

A large number of sex workers in the area who have settled decades ago in Songachi from far-flung districts of West Bengal are yet to get proper identity proofs. As a result of such red tapism, these sex workers cannot avail benefits of several state government welfare schemes such as subsidized food grains and Swasthya Sathi health schemes.

The long-standing demands of the sex workers of Sonagachi of being recognised as labourers by the State government has also not been fulfilled.

“Moreover, we also have deal with harassment by the police. If the political parties want our votes they have to treat us like citizens. We cannot make our living with hollow promises,” said another sex worker.

Municipal services especially garbage cleaning is also not up to the mark in Sonagachi where heaps of garbage near the roadside is not an uncommon sight.

However, local TMC MLA and Women and Child Development Minister Sashi Panja claimed that “ after the TMC government came to power Municipal services at Sonagachi have improved by leaps and bounds. Our candidate from Kolkata North Sudip Bandyopadhyay would not have received so much support from this area if the services were not good.”

“We are not involved in politics or political parties. All we want is a life of dignity and better living conditions,” said Putul Haldar, president of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, the largest organisation of sex workers in West Bengal based in Sonagachi.

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