The country’s oldest ‘bank’ run by and for female sex workers, Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Society, is on an expansion mode and is opening its doors to male customers. Established on June 21, 1995, bank is located in India’s largest red light area of Sonagachi in Kolkata.
However, the male customers, who have to become members of the cooperative, will have no voting rights.
Over the past 22 years, the outfit that is for the sex workers, of the sex workers and by the sex workers has flourished under the guidance and stewardship of a board of nine, all of whom are female sex workers.
“We meet twice a month where we sanction loans, deliberate on ways to raise collections, recovery of sticky loans and fluctuation of interest rates,” said Shefali Das, chairperson of Usha.
The bank was set up in 1995 with just Rs 30,000 as working capital. Now the turnover stands at nearly Rs 30 crore. In 2015-16 it disbursed loans to the tune of Rs 7 crore (to sex workers).
The bank has three branches at Kalighat, Sonagachi and Dinhata (Cooch Behar district). It has a network of 16 collection centres in red lights areas of the state where 28 agents, all children of sex workers, collect deposits every day.
The amount of daily collection even touched a high of Rs 4 lakh before demonetisation.
“Our work is expanding throughout Bengal and we want to spread the operations. Therefore, we can no longer limit it to female sex workers. We are ready to take applications from males. Apart from individuals, the bank will also now cater to construction workers, domestic workers and other marginalised sections,” said Smarajit Jana, chief adviser of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, the body of sex workers that run the bank. Jana was also the brain behind the bank 22 years ago.
Interestingly, the decision to welcome male members was taken before demonetisation. “But it can now help us to beat the note ban blues and expand business,” pointed out Jana.
“We welcome the move because more accounts mean more money for the bank, which, in turn, can disburse more loans to us,” said Rupali Ghosh (name changed) a sex worker in Sonagachi.
Then she hastened to add, “One has to tell male customers when they stand in the queue with us, they should behave properly.”
The move has already secured the approval of the state government under the administrative control of which the bank functions.
Bank officials told HT among the male members the focus is on marginalised communities, self help groups, domestic and construction workers.
“We have already amended our constitution to usher in the changes. Thereafter, we sent letters to the cooperative department of state government that approved our proposals,” said Santanu Chatterjee, finance manager of the bank.
A male member will have to pay Rs 200 for admission fee and has to buy a bond of Rs 500 (not applicable for female sex workers) which is refundable.