New Delhi: In the narrow lanes of G.B. Road, the red light area of Delhi, a few sex workers stand in the scorching heat and wait for rations to be distributed.
The sex workers haven’t had any work ever since the Centre announced the lockdown in March. While the whole country is suffering, with migrant workers walking thousands of miles to reach home in the face of uncertainty, sex workers have been silently bearing the brunt of the lockdown. The women are starving and have been largely left alone to deal with the crisis.
“We hardly earn anything otherwise too, and now this lockdown has come as a curse for us,” said Nagma (name changed on request), who is staying alone in the brothel with no source of income to sustain herself.
“I used to earn Rs 200 to 300 per day, which was around Rs 5,000 per month. But we don’t have to pay rent and that is the only benefit,” she said, showing her small room.
Nagma hails from Andhra Pradesh and has been working as a sex worker for the past 15 years. “My family is in the village, including my kids. I used to send them money. I have nothing to send now. There is no money to even buy medicines,” she said.
Due to restricted movement, the women have to live inside cramped houses, with tiny rooms, narrow alleys and staircases. Outside is no better, with a dirty footpath occupied by the homeless and rickshaw workers.
The state government provides ration every month but, they say, it is next to nothing.
“They give one bag of rice and wheat for every two persons. Usually, this is done on individual basis,” said a sex worker standing outside her house.
On March 26, Centre had announced that Rs 500 would be transferred to women’s account for three months under the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan scheme – Jan Dhan Yojana. But the workers said that they haven’t got any money.
Recently, a PIL was filed in the Delhi High Court seeking the Centre and the Delhi government to provide financial aid and social security to sex workers and LGBTQIA+ members in the national capital.
“There is no particulars or details found regarding grant of any financial aid and scheme to sex workers and LGBT community people by the Delhi government, despite exercise of due diligence by the petitioner and other people in the society,” the plea said.
The civil society groups have also abandoned them to fend for themselves during this crisis, the workers say. “They have used our stories to earn money, while we have nothing,” said Choti.
Some individuals and organisations voluntarily visit the areas to distribute food and ration but they have to do it through the local police to avoid chaos. But the women say that they don’t trust civil society organisations and cannot entirely rely on them to make ends meet.
Another fear that looms large – financial stability in a post-lockdown world. Since sex work is their only means to earn bread and butter, they are scared that they won’t be able to sustain themselves in the long run.
“People slowly stopped coming as soon as they started hearing about coronavirus on news. Just before the lockdown only, we saw few customers,” said Choti.
She says that they are well aware of the consequences of COVID-19 but are uncertain about future. “How will we earn is what I am concerned about. We are afraid,” added Choti.
In another block, three women stand together worried about their present situation.
“My family lives far away from here. I hardly see them and due to this lockdown and very little money, I was not able to go home,” said a worker, who didn’t want to reveal her name. “There are problems, from food to money – we only have problems. The society is also not supportive and it gets a bit difficult, but most of us have learnt to deal with it,” she said.
Nagma, who wants to go back home, looks skeptical. “I live far away and I don’t know how to leave. I tried booking a ticket online to travel back home in the special train, but the process was tedious and it was difficult so, I didn’t try much,” she said.
While many have left, more than 1,200 sex workers are stranded at G.B. road with no source of income, zero scope for physical distancing and unhygienic environment.
The workers are pleading the government to hear their grievances and take necessary measures to resolve their issues.
Nikita Jain is a journalist working in Delhi and has covered various issues. She aspires to bring change through her work.
All photos provided by the author