Mum­bai, Kolkata sex work­ers, their bank deal with cash crunch pain

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - HT Navi Mumbai Live - - FRONT PAGE - Ravik Bhat­tacharya and Naresh Kamath ht­metro@hin­dus­tan­times.com

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 Rs50,000 for an emer­gency at home. But they could give only Rs4,000, 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, 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.

Be­fore de­mon­eti­sa­tion, the bank sold an es­ti­mated 100 car­tons (4,00,000 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 (1,00,000 pieces), the bank of­fi­cials said. De­posits nose­dived from about Rs4,00,000 a day be­fore Novem­ber 8, when the de­mon­eti­sa­tion was an­nounced, to about Rs70,000-100,000 now.

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 money (after de­mon­eti­sa­tion),” said Amin Pa­tel, the lo­cal leg­is­la­tor.

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