“We are going to die soon,” the woman sitting on a chair along the potholed road declares – almost as if making a prophecy. She is surrounded by four other women, who are sitting on the porch and listening intently, as the dark clouds hover above.
“If this situation continues for another two to four months, we will surely die,” she reiterates, this time her voice more firm, though her expression remains unchanged.
Jogamasi (name changed), or ‘Maa’ as she is addressed in the area, has never seen a crisis of this magnitude in the last 63 years she has spent in Mali Sahi – a red light area in Bhubaneswar.
The COVID-19 pandemic has snatched away the livelihood of the sex workers and left them in a lurch.
“We are sex workers. We cater to customers on a daily basis, earn money and then spend it to buy food and other necessary items. Now, due to COVID-19, our daily routine has gone for a toss. We have no customers anymore and no source of income,” says Jogamasi, who takes care of the sex workers in the Mali Sahi area.
Located barely 300 metres away from a posh hotel in central Bhubaneswar, Mali Sahi is home to around 250 sex workers in the city. Most of them are from Odisha, while a few have come from the neighbouring state of West Bengal.
A smelly drainage canal flows adjacent to their homes – almost as if dividing the rest of the city with the red light area. On a typical day, the women would usually sit along the road and wait for the customers to arrive.
"“Every day, we would finish off our household chores by afternoon and stand on the road, waiting for the customers to arrive. The work would get over by 9 pm to 10 pm and we would return to our homes. But since March, we have no customers at all.”" - Namita*
She had eloped with her husband 25 years ago from Odisha’s Berhampur district, and has been living in Mali Sahi since then.
‘Exhausted Savings, No Regular Help’
The sex workers of Mali Sahi earn anything between Rs 100 and Rs 500 per customer.
The rates vary according to the age – the younger the worker, the payment is more.
There is no fixed rule regarding how many ‘customers’ can one worker cater to. As an unwritten rule, each worker has to contribute Rs 20 monthly to the welfare fund constituted by them. In times of crisis like this, the fund money is now being utilised to take care of the daily expenses of the workers.
“Many workers have exhausted their savings. With no work, we are forced to use the fund money to help them. Some NGOs had given us dry food initially, but it was not sufficient,” says Jogamasi.
Currently, there are only 100 workers living in Mali Sahi as the rest of them have gone back to their villages.
The new norm of ‘social distancing’ has further put a question mark on their profession. When the lockdown had started in March, the workers had barricaded the area and refused to take customers as a precautionary measure – a step they had hoped would last only a few days.
‘Life More Important Than Livelihood’
But, little did they know, they were staring at an uncertain future. However, while the unlocking has begun and they have removed the barricades, they are still sceptical on catering to the customers.
“As a precautionary measure, I have asked my workers to adhere to certain basic rules. If a customer comes, the workers will first check for any visible symptoms of COVID-19 like cold. If there are no symptoms, they can take the customers, but they have to ask them to use sanitizers. Sounds strange, na? It is weird for us too. But remember, life is more important than livelihood,” says Jogamasi, almost breaking into a smile, as she adjusts her mask.
For now, the sex workers have no future plan chalked out. Instead they are hoping for government intervention to end the crisis.
“This COVID-19 looks scarier than cancer. The whole world has been affected. Nobody knows when this will end. If it is here to stay, some plan should be chalked out for us. It is not possible for us to take up a job. How many people will allow a sex worker to work in their homes? During the lockdown, many people visited us, showed sympathy, but nobody really made an effort to help us. COVID-19 has made us realise that we are on our own. Nobody cares for us,” says Jogamasi.
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