Kolkata’s red light area Sonagachi empty over coronavirus, sex workers lose business

Many of these sex workers, however, feel safety was of primary concern and preferred to stay indoors for now

Kolkata: Red-light areas in West Bengal were witnessing a sharp decline in the number of customers, amid the novel coronavirus scare, with several sex workers finding it difficult to make ends meet.

Many of these sex workers, however, feel safety was of primary concern and preferred to stay indoors for now, even if that would mean curtailing expenses.

With just a handful of them out on the streets, Asia's largest red-light area in the city — Sonagachi — wore a deserted look on Sunday afternoon, a time when clients are usually seen making a beeline.

Adjacent to Sonagachi area, too, the scene was no different, with only a few women sauntering down the Abinash Kabiraj Street, Masjid Bari Lane and Rabindra Sarani as they wait for customers.

"This isn't what Sonagachi looks like on a regular day. There has been a decrease in number of customers since Holi. Generally, we see at least 20,000 customers every day, but now with this coronavirus threat, people seem to be skeptical...

"On an average, not more than 500 customers are visiting the area," Kajol Bose, the secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee - a sex workers' organisation - told PTI.

Another member of the committee, Baisakhi Lashkar, said many have chosen to remain indoors, as they do not want to take chances.

"We have at least 12,000 women here in Sonagachi, but only 10 per cent are currently working. The situation is similar in districts, too.

"We have information that regular customers have stopped visiting red -ight areas in other parts of the state, including Sheoraphuli, Domjur, Uluberia, Kalna, Shantipur, Dinhata, Panjipara, Coochbehar," she added.

Sharing her plight, Rita Roy, a sex worker in Sonagachi, said she was at her wit's end trying to figure out how to manage her expenses.

"It will take a toll on our lives. If the situation continues to be like this, I may not be able to send money home. I have to pay room rent, fees for my son's teachers and also bear my mother's medical expenses," she stated.

Seema Halder, who lives in Garia area in the city, echoed her.

"We are facing a challenging situation... Customers have stopped coming because of the coronavirus threat. Earlier, we used to have at least four customers a day; now, it's almost down to zero," Halder said.

Asked whether they were taking measures to protect themselves from Covid-19, Lakshar said girls know wearing masks, using sanitisers and keeping safe distance would be helpful "but that wouldn't get them clients".

"We have told them that before zeroing in on a customer, they must check whether he is having fever or cough -- the symptoms of Covid-19. Many have also bought sanitisers. Having said that, our girls are scared too...." she said.

Sangita Khan, another sex worker in Kidderpore, said she does not always have the option to pick and choose as the number of customers has declined in the past few weeks.

"The fear of getting infected remains. We are trying to talk to them from a distance to understand whether they have any symptom. At a time, when only few customers are turning up, we do not have the luxury to choose," she said.

Emphasising the need to raise awareness on the pandemic, Baisakhi said a campaign should be launched to reach out to as many sex workers as possible.

"A lot is being done by the government.... We are getting messages on our mobile phones... We are also regularly reaching out to sex workers to advise them. But, more needs to be done and we are working on it," Baisakhi added.

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