"Who cares about us anyway, all parties are the same." The frustration and discontent among sex workers in and around Sonagachi, Asia's biggest red-light area, is palpable weeks before the area votes in the Lok Sabha Elections. Their rose-tinted visions about elections, stemming from the hope that elected representatives would take up their cause and work for their rights, have faded. Most of these sex workers now seem inclined to press on the NOTA button.
"The political leaders are the lawmakers of our country, right? Then how come they never take up our rights in Parliament, where laws are made and amended every day?" asks Shefali Roy, a 55-year-old sex worker and activist.
For decades workers like her have been campaigning to get their trade legalised. "Our line of work is like any other jobs, why should we be harassed every time. We have appealed to all Netas, across party lines on numerous occasions. They all make the same promises, but once voted to power never think about us, or talk about us in Parliament. Why should we think about them when they so conveniently ignore us?" asks Kajol Bose, secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), an NGO working hand-in-hand with them for ages.
But the problem isn't just the indifference by political leaders. Many living in the alleys of the red-light area don't have valid identify proofs. "Many have come here many years ago and have no way of going back to their original homes to retrieve proofs required. Forget birth certificates, they can't tell their parents or husbands where they live now and what work they do," explains Sima Phokla, 40, a sex worker-activist.
The DMSC card, a copy of the passbook of Usha Bank, a co-operative bank run by sex workers association and may be a PAN card, along with a letter by local MLA or MP for years helped get a valid voter card, after rounds of verification and interviews at the election commissions' office. Of late things have changed. "Our MLA in this area, Shashi Panja, and MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay have seldom taken up our cause. With elections approaching, they visit our lanes to ask for votes. But if we don't have the cards how will we vote," asks one of them, not willing to be identified.
The lack of legal documents exposes them to bigger problems. "If we don't have cards, getting cards for our children too is extremely difficult. We can't avail any social welfare schemes as we lack valid IDs. Aren't we citizens of this country?" asks Kalaboti Devi, a 50-year-old. "If girls here get pregnant, without a valid ID they can't avail the numerous facilities and benefits of giving birth in a government hospital," adds another sex worker in her early 30s.
There are other reasons for the disenchantment with political policy, demonetisation being one of them. "We earn on a daily basis, when PM announced note ban so suddenly, no one was prepared and obviously customers couldn't pay us so they stopped coming," says Kalaboti Devi. Many used the bylanes to palm off illegal notes. "After turning away many customers with old notes, one day I agreed thinking I might be able to exchange it at the bank. However, once he handed a Rs 500 note, I felt it was softer than usual. By the time I asked fellow girls to check the note, he ran away," laments a 36-year-old sex worker.
They were happy when PM Narendra Modi urged citizens to open zero-balance accounts. "We were excited that finally, someone is thinking about the poor in the country. But forget the lakhs promised, we didn't even get Rs 500 from the government in those accounts. Now maintaining them is a hassle," adds Roy.
But again the lack of ID cards comes back into the conversation. "At least during CPIM rule, we had some moral support, they would at least listen to us and help us with such problems of getting our cards made. Now with TMC rarely is any of our work done," adds Roy.
Out of the 91 workers in Sonagachi who have applied for their cards this polling season, only 50 have received them and many allege it's the lack of cooperation from local leaders that did not help their case. In adjoining areas of Bow Bazar, Rabindra Sarani, Rambagan around 40 people have applied and none have received it. The case is quite similar in other districts too. In Bashirhat, Titagarh, Santipur collectively around 50 workers applied to get cards, and none have received yet, according to DMSC.
"In the south, Firad Hakim wrote a letter for the workers in Chelta and Khidirpur region, couldn't the same be done for us here?" asks another sex worker.
"We don't take up cases of Bangladeshi or Nepali immigrants to the EC, requesting them to issue valid ID cards for the workers but people who are from here should be able to get a legal ID of their own," stresses Mahasweta Mukherjee, Liaison and advocacy officer, DMSC.
Realising they make a good vote bank, they have decided to ignore all parties just like they have been ignored all along. "Say, there are about 10,000 workers and each has around five family members, so that's 50,000 people voting for NOTA. Politicians lose even by one vote, right? So losing out on such a big number will make them take us seriously," adds Bose.