Kamathipura sex workers struggle to survive amid lockdown

PTI29-03-2020_000075B Volunteers distribute food packets to workers during a nationwide lockdown in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, at Kamathipura area in Mumbai. March 29, 2020 | PTI

It is late afternoon and still no customer has turned up at her door in Kamathipura, infamous as the flesh trade district of Mumbai.

This is the eighth day that sex worker Soni, 49, has not got a single "kastamber" (customer), as she pronounces it.

Dressed in a velvet maxi, she peeps out every now and then from behind the curtain of her room door on the road outside lying empty, in view of the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The situation has brought despair not just for her but for thousands of other sex workers who have been involved in prostitution in Kamathipura since several decades.

Soni, who hails from Nepal, has been a sex worker in the '10th gully' of Kamathipura since the last 25 years.

"Poora jindagi idhar nikala, itna bam fata, attack hua, kitna bimari aya, lekin aisa halat kabhi nahi tha" (spent the whole life in this work. The city witnessed bomb blasts, attacks, many diseases, but this kind of situation never occurred in the past," she said in 'Mumbai style' Hindi.

She has not earned a single rupee since last Sunday and does not see any chance of the situation improving in the next few days.

"If this continues, what will I eat, how will I pay rent to room owner are the questions before me," she said.

Besides Soni, there are three more women in the room who say that on normal days, they earn Rs 2,000 to 3,000.

Asked how they are managing their food, Soni said, "I have brought some groceries, but they will last only two-three days. I will now have to spend cautiously from my savings."

Kamathipura was once known as the largest brothels in the country. Women of various age groups are involved in flesh trade here. Many are trafficked and brought here from West Bengal, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Due to the current lockdown, the prostitution business here is in a slump.

On a normal day, the area is bustling with activity, with customers from the city and suburbs arriving here. But, nowadays the narrow lanes of Kamathipura, the old dilapidated buildings in the area wear a deserted look.

While walking through its bylanes, the song "Aaja teri yaad aayi" (come, I'm remembering you), a hit number from 1970 film 'Charas', blaring on a radio summed up the situation prevailing in the area.

With no work now, some of the prostitutes are seen sitting in groups, plucking each other's grey hair or playing cards to spend their time.

Another sex worker Jaya, who is in her 30s, is worried about how to earn money to sustain her livelihood in these unprecedented times.

She hails from West Bangal and was forced into prostitution by a trafficker.

"I don't have any work since a week now and I also don't have enough money with me," says Jaya, while keeping an eye on her gas burner as the pressure cooker whistled, filling the place with the smell of dal and rice being boiled in it.

She has a six-year-old son whom she has kept with a family known to her in Pune so he can go to school and study.

"Every month, I have to send at least Rs 1,500 for my child, but if I don't earn, how can I send the money for him? I have lot of tension," she said.

Another sex worker Kiran said, "Why dont you people tell Modi (Prime Minister) to send us money as we also have aged parents and children to look after."

"Why doesnt he give us a package as we are also human beings...take my word, if this situation continues, offences like theft, loot and assault will increase," she said, while narrating an incident of the previous day wherein a man was attacked with knife in the area.

A similar situation prevails at the Mumbai Sangeet Kala Mandal, located near Kennedy Bridge at Grant Road, where prostitutes perform 'mujra' (sensuous dance) to solicit rich customers.

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