With zero cases of COVID-19 despite high vulnerability, the combined efforts of the administration, activists and commercial sex workers (CSWs) has helped the red light area in Pune city emerge victorious in the battle against the deadly virus.
And their success lies in following these three mantras: enforcement, awareness and self-discipline, during the last three months.
Considered one of the most sensitive areas in terms of vulnerability to the infection, the red light district that houses around 3,500 sex workers in a crammed locality of Budhwar Peth, has not reported even a single case of the virus, as of June 12.
The city began seeing a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in March, following which the police and the municipal administration decided to restrict the entry of outsiders in the area. “We sealed the area during the third week of the March and ensured that no outsider comes near its vicinity,” said Inspector Kalaskar of Faraskhana police station.
“We not only stopped the (entry of) outsiders, but also enforced the clampdown in such a way that not even a single CSW had to come out of the area. We provided them with all essentials at their doorstep with the help of various NGOs that supplied us food packets, sanitization materials, medicines, and other essentials like sanitary pads, etc,” he added.
During this period, Kalaskar said, over 5,000 sanitary pads were distributed among the sex workers.
“Creating awareness among these women was an essential task, I believe. Because, if one understands what the disease is and how it spreads, only then they can take care of themselves. So I would go with a municipality van with a speaker and inform them about COVID-19 and the preventive measures to be taken,” Alka Gujnal, a social worker associated with the Akhil Budhwar Peth Devdasi Sanghatana (ABPDS), told The Federal.
Alka, along with some volunteers, also ran a door-to-door awareness campaign in the first two weeks of the lockdown, said Prakash Yadav, president of the ABPDS. The organisation also surveyed houses to find out the number of children residing in the area.
Further, upon their request, one of the local milk suppliers agreed to provide milk packets daily for the children of the sex workers, Yadav said. “We get around 40 litres of milk every day and our volunteers deliver it to the designated houses,” he added.
Some medical camps too were arranged with the help of the NGOs. Inspector Kalasakar said that the police would work alongside health workers to ensure enforcement of social distancing norms during the health camps or kits distribution.
Volunteers from the local Ganesh Mandals, such as Jai Maharashtra Yuvak Mandal and Veer Hanuman Mandal, too helped the sex workers. These volunteers cooked and distributed food among 300 sex workers every day for free.
“Not all sex workers get the kits or other help evenly. In such cases, we inform the police about it and provide them with a list of such people,” said Saurabh Pawar of Jai Maharashtra Yuvak Mandal.
One of the sex workers told The Federal they received ration and other essential supplies from the police and the volunteers. “We didn’t get any customers for over three months. But we didn’t stay hungry,” she said.
“Tai (Alka) told us how dangerous it would be if the virus enters our area. So we stopped the business ourselves. Also, a few from our colony are suffering from terminal diseases like HIV-AIDS, which makes them more vulnerable, Tai said. So we completely stopped the business,” added another.
The sex workers too were very keen on not allowing anyone inside the area or start the business even covertly.
“Waise saahab, jaan hai toh jahaan hai (sir, if there is life, there is a world),” she exclaimed.