Kolkata: Sonia Jahan, a sex worker who plies her trade in Sonagachhi—a 4 sq. km red light district, which is one of the largest in the world—is a worried woman these days. It’s not as if recession has forced her clients to cut back on their trysts with the tall, fair lady from Uttar Pradesh, who belongs to a wealthier lot of sex workers euphemistically referred to as agrawallis.
“I’m worried about what will happen to my three autorickshaws as I’ve heard some court ban will come into effect soon,” says Jahan, who claims she is 35, but is probably a decade older. Her reference is to the ban imposed by the Calcutta high court on two-stroke autorickshaws, which the state government was to enforce from 1 February. It couldn’t, but will eventually.
The court banned two-stroke autorickshaws because the engines fitted in them do not burn the fuel fully and emit extremely harmful fumes. Four-stroke engines, on the other hand, are more efficient and do not pollute the air as much as two-stroke engines do.
Jahan, like scores of sex workers in Sonagachhi, had bought three autorickshaws at a time when two-stroke engines were more popular, in the hope that it would serve as a source of steady income after she outlived her utility in the flesh trade.
“Many of us have bought autos (autorickshaws) to ensure our sons, brothers and even husbands get settled,” says Nilmoni Das, whose husband drives a two-stroke petrol autorickshaw that she had bought for him five years ago.
“There must be some 300 autos owned by women of this area,” she says. Each typically yields a monthly profit of Rs7,500 or thereabouts, after all loans are repaid, according to owners.
Owning an autorickshaw is the exclusive preserve of wealthier sex workers of Sonagachhi such as Jahan and Das. The hundreds of garishly painted women clad in telltale clothes that people see everyday on the streets of north Kolkata do not have the wherewithal to start a side business such as running an autorickshaw. Estimates vary, but people say women of Songachhi own hundreds of autorickshaws that ply on the streets of north Kolkata.
But their plans of securing a future for their children or building a savings for retirement have been dashed by the proposed ban on two-stroke autorickshaws. It would affect the sex workers more than other autorickshaw owners because they cannot avail of the state government’s rehabilitation scheme.
Under the scheme, owners of two-stroke autorickshaws can borrow from banks at a special rate and buy new ones fitted with four-stroke engines. But banks wouldn’t lend to sex workers, which means they would have to either borrow from their loyal clients, or the so-called babus, or moneylenders.
“I still haven’t repaid the loan that I took from one of my babus,” says Jahan, who is worried that she might have to again borrow from them. This, she fears, could upset her plans of returning to Uttar Pradesh in a couple of years.
Though autorickshaw owners such as Jahan and Das, who paid off her loan recently, are worried these days, some are unfazed.
Madhu Singh, a sex worker in her 40s, said, “We don’t need any (financial) package (from the government)...we have done it on our own, and will do so again, if needed.”