Covid-19 pandemic passes shadow on Kolkata’s sex workers during this years Durga Puja

Trafficked or abandoned, these women have come to terms with their lives in the red light zone of Kolkata. During the five-day spell of Durga Puja every year, the lives become a little brighter as they come out of the dingy allies mixing up openly with friends out in the broad daylight.

BY SOUDHRITI BHABANI 

Life has never been like it is in year 2020 for around 15,000 commercial sex workers who earn their daily bread in Kolkata’s infamous red light district of Sonagachi. Paying high rent, negotiating with touts and handling varied customers are their daily affairs in a bid to earn a square meal every day.

Trafficked or abandoned, these women have come to terms with their lives in the red light zone of Kolkata. During the five-day spell of Durga Puja every year, the lives become a little brighter as they come out of the dingy allies mixing up openly with friends out in the broad daylight.

Starting from Anjali (prayers), preparation of Bhog, Dhunuchi dance and playing with Sindur (vermilion) – they participate in the traditional rituals in every possible way.

Sex workers of Sonagachhi now have a puja to call their own. But this year, the on-going pandemic has redefined their lives too, making it more difficult as their business has almost come to a standstill.

“We have cut down on our Puja budget from Rs 4 lakh last year to less than Rs 3 lakh this year due to the Covid-19 situation. Our business has suffered a lot in the time of lockdown. But we have decided to uphold our struggle and soak in the festive mood as this is the only yearly breather we enjoy.”

“However, the glamour of Dhunuchi dance and Sindur play – the best of puja for us – would be missing this time,” said Bharati Dey of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) — an organisation that works for the rights of the 65,000 registered sex workers in West Bengal.

DMSC has been organising the puja at Sonagachhi for the past few years. Durbar was set up in 1995 but started organising Durga Puja in 2013 when it used to be a tiny affair within their office premises. In 2016, they decided to scale it up and shift it to the road braving obstacles and many social taunting.

Dey said that there would be no Sindur Khela (Playing with vermilion) on the occasion of Dashami this year. “We will only have a few sex workers inside the pandals (marquee). Many sex wokers from different fields like Bowbazar, Chetla, Kalighat, Khidirpur, Tollygunj do participate in our puja every year but we have asked them not to come this time, considering the Covid-19 pandemic,” she told IANS.

Dey said that over 10,000 sex workers participate in the Durga Puja organised by DMSC every year. “But this time we have decided not to make it a lavish affair,” she added.

Many sex workers from Kolkata’s neighbouring Barrackpore, Asansol and other pockets located in various districts have also been asked to celebrate the festival in their respective areas, maintaining all necessary Covid-19 safety protocols.

“We have also made our marquee a bit smaller in size this year so that less number of people can get accommodated inside the pandal area,” Said Smarajit Jana, chief advisor of DMSC.

Meanwhile, the Calcutta High Court on Monday said that all Durga Puja pandals (marquees) in the state would be made no-entry zones for visitors for the interests of the public. A five meter zone for smaller pandals and ten meter zone for larger pandals are also included within the no-entry zone. The area will have to be barricaded off and demarcated as no entry zone except for named personnel who have to be identified by organizers in advance whose presence shall be required for performing the puja.

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