A recent guideline recommended by a Supreme Court appointed panel asking that raids on brothels should not lead to arrests of sex workers has brought to the forefront the travails of an ostracised informal industry. Vaibhav Raghunandan met sex workers a few months ago to understand their lives in the shadow of a pandemic that upended their profession and lives.
By Vaibhav Raghunandan
Every Monday, at the break of dawn, Sneha’s husband leaves home to find work at a construction site in North Delhi. The walk, the queue, the competition means getting picked to work on a site for the week is a bit like buying into a lottery. Most Mondays, he wins, because he has fixed the game. The contractors and the foremen at most of the local sites know him. He slogs it out through the week, and on Friday, after collecting his wages, he stops at a booze shop to buy himself a treat. He drinks his pay all the way home.
“To put it simply,” Sneha says, “whatever he earns he spends on his pleasures. The household runs on its own.” But households in fact don’t actually run on their own. Sneha puts together the money to ensure her two children don’t starve, have shelter over their heads and also go to school to get an education that can lead them out of this life. She works as a house help, but the pay is meagre. It is barely enough to get food on the table, other expenses aside. She is forced to double up, in whatever ways necessary.
“Zahir si baat hai. Ab karna pad raha hai yeh kaam toh karte hain,” she says. “Jo kamate hain woh ghar pe lagate hain.” Sneha’s words are not pained, they are purely practical. There is no shame in doing what she does, if only for her family.
In a bylane of the furniture market in Kirari village (North West Delhi), is the 'brothel'. It’s an inconspicuous building painted grey in the areas where the brick is not exposed, without character. The only reason to notice it is perhaps because it is squeezed between two larger buildings, a misfit in that space — the middle passenger in economy class, uncomfortable, but there. A narrow staircase leads up to the first floor, a one room, open kitchen (toilet under construction) space, where Sneha sits with Kiran, the madam who lives in the building. Sneha's lament is cut short by the arrival of a third woman. Kiran springs into action. Out of the shadows comes the client for whom she was called. “Tere bolne pe bulaya hai. Tumne bola isliye maine spesal isse bola. Chal hazar ki baat hui thi.” The client mumbles his surprise before dropping the bombshell that actually he didn’t expect his wish to be fulfilled and therefore doesn’t have the money on him.
“Kitna hai abhi? Chal 500 de de.”
“Abhi toh 300 hi hai.”
“Chal 400 mei kar de.”
“Didi, hain sirf 300.”
Kiran grimaces turns away and nods. Money is exchanged. The girl goes away… to the floor above, which has two rooms.
Kiran explains her side of the bargain. “Theek hai. Kuch toh aayega haath mei. Bad mei udhaar chuk jayega. Aaj kal aise hi chalna padta hai. Corona ke pehle aisa nahi karte the. Jo rate hai so hai wala hisab tha.”
 all names in the story have been changed to protect characters from the potentially severe consequences of being identified for performing sex work
AN UNMASKED PROFESSION
Kiran turned to sex work full time 12 years ago, when she lost her job sewing shoes at a leather factory in the city. A single mother of four, she got into the business after hearing a neighbour suggest it as an alternative to her financial troubles. Two of her children live in the building now, on a different floor, and one even assists with the business — provides protection as she says.
“There is no shame in doing this,” Kiran says. “Shame is left at the front door when you walk in. Everyone who does this, does this for the money. The real shame is when you don’t have money to feed your family, or support your children at all.” Which is what happened when the pandemic struck. Kiran says, in the days of lockdown, policemen would station themselves on either side of the road leading to the brothel, guarding it almost as if it was an epicentre of disease, forcing her to stay inside all the time. Nobody obviously came in, but it also meant nobody got out.
“If my children stepped out for rations, the assumption was that they had stepped out to arrange a girl for someone,” she says. “If I stepped out immediately there would be questions.”
Sneha meanwhile faced abuse at home, forced into a cramped space with an alcoholic husband suffering withdrawal and two children starved of friendship, education and food. Neither had ration cards or any proof of identity to definitely avail of government services or aid. For weeks on end, the family made do with eating one meal a day, boiled rice and dal, scrounged with the help of neighbours or well-wishers — of both which were few. Kiran and Sneha testify to and name many peers who took loans from moneylenders, broke savings just to make by. The debts piled up, and when it became sustainable, they left for home.
“I think about 50% of the women have gone back to their villages, with their family,” Sneha says. When the Supreme Court, hearing a PIL filed by the Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee, directed state governments to supply dry rations to sex workers without insisting on identity documents, some in the area — Kiran and Sneha among them — availed of the aid. There were many who didn’t.
Fifteen minutes into the conversation, when the third girl Reshma, walks in, the duo ask if she availed of the government aid, only to receive a shake of the head. She feared being recognised in the queue, and her husband, physically assaulting her for revealing herself in public.
“This is also the reality,” says Pushpa, a programme co-ordinator at Aarohan, an NGO that provides education, healthcare and advocacy to members of the transgender and sex worker community in the city. While sex work is a recognised, if not organised and formalised industry in the country, there exist large pockets where women plying the trade do so without revealing this openly to their families.
Aarohan collaborated with Oxfam India under Mission Sanjeevani—the latter’s COVID-19 Response—project to help provide ration (for a family of five for at least a month), safety and hygiene kit, and medical assistance in the area. Pushpa says they distributed aid to almost 600 families (of which 200 were sex workers) in the area, in the days of the lockdown, and have continued providing medical aid regularly since.
 including transgenders
Everyone obviously knows where the money comes from,” she says. “But all these girls do other jobs, they work at their own homes and generally don’t ply the trade in the same way as, say, they do it in GB Road.” Which means the protection is reduced too.
“There is no way we know who has been vaccinated or not, whether they have the virus or not,” she says. “Our profession doesn’t allow us to be distanced. Yeh AIDS toh nahi hai, ki kuch kadam sahi lo toh rok sakte ho. Hume kuch nahi pata kiss ko ho sakta hai.”
What they do is, work with clients they know or are familiar with. New faces are screened and mostly turned away. It's bad for the business, but it is the new normal. You turn away those you don’t know. “In the days before COVID-19, we’d earn about Rs 30,000 a month easily,” Kiran says. “Now no one feels safe coming here, and obviously we don’t feel safe letting any random person in, so… I’d say we get about Rs. 4000-6000.”
The money is split in a manner, where everyone gets a share, regardless of how much work they brought in. Kiran, of course, controls the split, and takes a share for providing the space. It is organised as a collective, even if it isn’t formally described as one. Every sex worker who co operated in this story agrees that while the government can do more to help them with aid, letting them control the industry by formalising it would only wreak havoc on their lives. The shadow of law enforcement falls heavily on their work right now, but it is bought off to look the other way. Regulation will create a new set of rules and marginalise those that want to stay invisible while doing the business.
The trouble though is that it is becoming less feasible to run this as a business anyway now. It isn’t just the clients who are slipping away. Many of the girls have walked out too, finding it easier to do work with regulars they know, privately, rather than work in a brothel as a collective. In the age of COVID-19, individualism reigns.
While a natural (and sub-consciously coerced) shift towards technology has crept into the sex industry too, Sneha says many women are still wary of taking up clients on the Internet. Those with access to smartphones and blessed with entrepreneurial spirit have signed up to sites that allow users to earn money performing on camera. These are very few. Pushpa says that kind of work is restricted to the ‘escorts’ and the ‘foreign girls’ who were anyway working high end clients. At the lower end of the spectrum there is a reluctance to embrace technology because they’ve faced severe abuse when it has touched them. Clients have walked away without paying money, solicited content online only to use it as blackmail, or, the worst, put them on the Internet without consent. What the girls who walk away now do is work via call, or use social media to procure clients. It requires a savvy that Sneha says,“the young girls have. Us older ones are used to the old ways, even if the old ways are dead.”
“I can’t control what they want to do at the end of the day. They came in voluntarily and they can leave when they want. Who am I to suggest anything?” Kiran shakes her head. “We are all just trying to survive.”
Even as the country creeps back to normal in a post pandemic world, some jobs remain in flux. Entire professions have been obliterated and many others needlessly done away with. For sex workers, an industry that has mostly worked informally and in the shadows of public consciousness, the Supreme Court appointed panel brings some relief. The Court said that,"since sex work is not illegal and only running the brothel is unlawful... [they] should not be arrested or penalised or harassed or victimised." The Court's recommendations came after the Centre had raised reservations to the panel's recommendations and a response — by a bench of justices — is expected to be filed by July 27. There is quiet satisfaction at the recommendations, but other bigger problems remain. While the world deliberates remote working, sanitised contact, and vaccine norms, sex workers go on as they always have working in the shadows cast by broad daylight.
About the author: Vaibhav Raghunandan is a photographer, journalist and designer. This story has been written as part of an assignment for Oxfam India, New Delhi.