‘Provide food to sex workers during lockdown’: SC tells Centre, states
Moved by the plight of lakhs of sex workers rendered jobless and without an alternate source of livelihood following the Covid-19 lockdown, the Supreme Court gave a week’s time to the states to respond on providing them free ration and asked Centre if something could be immediately provided to them in the exercise of its powers under the National Disaster Management Act.
The bench of Justices LN Rao and Hemant Gupta said, “This is a human problem. People are not getting ration for want of ration cards. They are under severe distress.”
An application filed by Darbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee before the top court said, “After the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, there was no work and no income. During April and May, sex workers scrimped through their meagre savings or took loans at exorbitant interest rates to survive. Most were dependent on the charity provided by individuals and philanthropic organizations.”
The Committee represented by senior advocate Anand Grover said, “Food is the most critical need of sex workers as an assessment conducted in five states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu shows that only 52 percent of 1.2 lakh sex workers are receiving ration through the public distribution system (PDS). The situation in other cities is even worse.”
Grover demanded the Court to order free ration for sex workers across the country without insisting on ration cards as most sex workers do not have any identity documents. He said that this suggestion was approved by the top court on September 15, 2011, while hearing a PIL seeking improvement of living conditions of sex workers. The suggestion stated, “All state governments, local authorities and other appropriate authorities should issue ration cards to the sex workers, relaxing the rigours of the existing rules and/or requirements as to verification of address, without mentioning the profession in the document.”
As per the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, there are over 8.68 lakh female sex workers in the country and 62,137 Hijra/transgender persons in 17 states, of which, 62 percent are engaged in sex work.
Additional Solicitor General (ASG) RS Suri, who appeared for the Centre, informed the Court that the government has provided benefits to sex workers under the Ujjwala Yojna for grant of LPG cylinders. Grover pointed out that in the 5-state survey, only 8 percent of 1.2 lakh sex workers could avail of the cooking gas scheme. In addition, the sex workers demanded medicines, healthcare, school fees incentive for their kids and pension for widows and old women among their community.
Grover pointed out that in April 2020, the Government announced cash support of Rs 1,500 for transgender persons to help them tide over the lockdown situation. He insisted on having something similar for sex workers. He said, “While it might seem that the condition of sex workers is no different from that of other poor, unorganized workers who are also encountering extreme hardships due to Covid-19, in reality, sex workers are worse off on account of the stigma associated with their work and the exclusion that results from such prejudice.”
While posting the matter for hearing on September 29, the Court asked the Centre to consider some immediate arrangement of food and basic needs for sex workers under the Disaster Management Act.