Cartons of condoms lie piled up next to a door marked as the “Credit Section” on the first floor of a house in Sonagachi, a rundown north Kolkata neighbourhood that is the country’s largest red light district.
From behind the closed door, heated conversations can be heard.
“I wanted Rs 50,000 for an emergency at home. But they could give only Rs 4,000, that too once a week. What am I supposed to do...?,” said Sonali Singh, her painted lips twitching in anger as she spoke. The 28-year-old is a sex worker, and the building is the headquarters of Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Society Ltd, the country’s oldest co-operative bank managed by and for sex workers.
Three months ago, the government pulled out high-value banknotes, triggering a severe cash crunch that has eased a bit now but for the sex workers of Sonagachi and their bank the crisis is far from over. Business for those like Singh is slow, and for the bank savings deposits are down. Plus, restrictions on cooperative banks over exchange of scrapped notes hurt Sonagachi’s cash-only economy.
The pile of condoms, the bank’s employees said, indicated a slump in business. The bank engages in social marketing of condoms to promote safe sex and prevent HIV/AIDS in red light areas.
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Before demonetisation, the bank sold an estimated 100 cartons (400,000 pieces) of condoms monthly at a subsidised rate of 80 paise a piece to sex workers. Now it is difficult to sell even 20 cartons (100,000 pieces), the bank officials said.
Deposits nosedived from about Rs 400,000 a day before November 8, when the demonetisation was announced, to about Rs 70,000-100,000 now.
“The thought behind opening such a bank for sex workers was to offer them an easy way to save money and take loans,” said Smarajit Jana, the brain behind the bank and an advisor to Durbar Mahilla Samanwaya Committee, a community-based organisation of sex workers in West Bengal.
The situation is no different in Mumbai’s Kamathipura, one of India’s oldest red light areas that is home to about 1,500 sex workers.
“The sex workers are virtually facing starvation and there is no way they can save any money (after demonetisation),” said Amin Patel, the local legislator. The sex workers are dependent on local money lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates, landing them permanently in debt.
In Sonagachi, about 48% of loans taken from the cooperative bank by sex workers was for the education of their children and another 25% for health care. Building houses and children’s marriage were the other reasons for taking loans.
The bank has two branches in Kalighat, also in Kolkata, and in Dinhata in Cooch Behar district. There are more than 26 collection centres across Bengal where sex workers deposit their money.
“We can now only give out Rs 4,000 to an account holder in a week. Sex workers vent their ire on us,” said Satabdi Saha, deputy manager in the bank.
Established in 1995 with Rs 30,000 as working capital, the bank now does business worth Rs 30 crores annually. In 2015-16, it disbursed loans worth Rs 7 crores to sex workers.
Shefali Das, 50, a former sex worker and president of the bank, said the cost of living in Sonagachi is higher than other neighbourhoods and almost everything runs on cash transactions.
Sex workers said some of them are cutting their rates to lure customers but even the discounts are not good enough to revive business.
“Here everything works on cash. For an A-grade sex worker, the rent for a decent room comes to around Rs 70,000 -80,000 a month. For B and C grade the rent for a small, dingy room is Rs 350 daily,” said Das.
“They also have to pay separately for electrical points. Moreover, girls have to pay touts, local toughs and cops. Since there is a sharp drop in clients, girls do not have cash in hand and they cannot save any.”
(With inputs from Naresh R Kamath in Mumbai)