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