A Unique Experiment

The Unsung Heroes of Cooperative Movement

Smarajit Jana

The story goes back to nineteen nineties, when the National Government of India felt the necessity to focus and target sex workers with a view to control spreading of HIV/AIDS in the country what brings sex workers into the lime light. Initial kneejerk reaction was to find out sex workers wherever possible followed by arrest and putting them to jail or to beat them mercilessly before burning their hutments. During those days no one raised any human rights violation issues, perhaps sex workers were not worth of getting that attention. Sooner the Government department came to the sense and developed a prevention strategy with the help of Global body of experts to prevent HIV transmission in the country. National or International agencies conceived sex workers as a 'core group transmitter of HIV'. The program's objective was to safeguard the interest of the mainstream society (who ostensibly represent the country) and to avert the looming HIV epidemic in the country and not out of any altruistic motive to safeguard the interest of this occupational group. HIV prevention program was launched across major cities in India and Kolkata was no exception. Program implementers in most of the sites left no stone unturned to reach out to sex workers (who otherwise were 'invisible' in the eyes of people and policy makers alike) with a basket full of condoms and Medicare services focusing treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. However in Kolkata, the intervention program implementers adopt a unique strategy to engage sex workers as 'health worker' providing training to them on HIV and health related issues, who are coined as 'peer educator'. In addition to that the team belonging to All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health, who ran the intervention program, intensifies the strategy to engage community members with an objective to help them to express their views, to identify their own issues and challenges. In essence the HIV prevention program created a social space and a mini cultural space within the program purview for the sex workers. The guiding principle of this prevention program was based on three Rs—namely 'Respect', 'Reliance' and 'Recognition' i.e. respect to women in sex work, rely on their agency and potential to make change and recognize them like any other human being and worker who earn their livelihood through selling sex services. Sex workers encouraged by this development sooner grab the opportunity to claim the space thus created by the HIV program and gradually transformed it into a political space for them, and took the initiative to steer their own agenda. In real terms, the fallout effect of all these activities linked to HIV prevention gave birth to a collective of sex workers, named Durbar, what came into existence by 1995. This incident could be marked as a watershed line in the development discourse of subalterns. On the other hand the success of this HIV prevention program in terms of increase in safer sex practices among sex workers, reduction in sexually transmitted infections and HIV among sex workers what in turn could stem the spread of HIV transmission in Kolkata and in West Bengal what made it a model intervention program across the Globe.

As a result of which scores of academicians, scholars, researchers from India and abroad make a beeline to the program sites. Series of research work undertaken by many of those national and international experts followed by analysis of various kinds of data and information has enriched the knowledge base of sex workers community what has been reflected in more than hundred publications. Some of these research papers argue on the ground that these unique phenomena were made possible in Kolkata as it is linked to the culture of unionization of Bengal including its legacy since the freedom movement. They draw this analogy without having much exposure and understanding to the culture and heritage of babus of Bengal, who otherwise from their ideological construct including their strong belief in gender stereotyped sexual norms and practices often dismiss any other routes of development for the sex workers other than the 'rehabilitation program' what could be imposed on them as part of the strategy and in that respect they stand in line with the Christian evangelist, right wing activists or informed Marxists in addition to caste Hindu feminists in the country.

During that period whatever may be in the minds of 'Bengali Babus', sex workers have their own. They decided to make their presence felt through a process of collectivization with a view to press their own issues and agenda. They out-rightly reject the motion of rehabilitation pressed by the Babus and started claiming rights and dignity as a worker. They considered themselves as service sector worker and they conclude that they sell sex services to their clients but not their bodies. They appear tired of listening through ages of all kinds of advisories promoted by the Babus of the mainstream society, including their moral sermon which is showered on them every other minute. They questioned the 'established norms' where individuals from the mainstream society often project themselves as the 'official representatives' of their views and who blew their trumpets with tearful eyes canceling their disliking but apparently showing pity and sympathy toward sex workers and their family members.

In this backdrop the sex workers collective called Durbar started fanning their wings across the state of West Bengal and sooner we will find them in leading the sex workers movement in the country and abroad. However this article is not to focus their political movement but to highlight their success in creating and managing a co-operative to build their financial base for future growth and development. Very few among us knew before that sex workers could hardly access financial services from financial institutions what is unthinkable for us.

The common practices among the Babus who are the staff members of financial institutions e.g. (Banks, Insurance Company etc.) were to deny sex workers in one way or other from accessing services. The primary reason behind their practices is linked to sex workers' inability to produce documents of residential proof to open any bank account or to get registered under any insurance scheme. Why they can't produce documents? Here lies the spin of the policy and legislation of the country. Providing rent to sex workers is a criminal offence which can draw imprisonment of the landlords as per the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) which regulates sex work in the country. As a result of which landlords never provide rent receipt, electricity or telephone bills to sex worker as tenants, the other reason was of course, linked to the babu culture of the city. Staff members of bank after getting to know the address of the sex workers often used to engage in ridiculing her in various ways e.g. asking husband's name or putting queries pointing their occupation, cracking insulting jokes and so on so forth. So they had to depend on the Grey market for any financial transactions.

That is why sex workers in general could hardly save their income and it was almost impossible for many of them to escape the debt traps, whenever they had to take loan from the money lenders. Once I calculated their complex system of imposing interest, the interest rate on capital it appears no less than three hundred per cent per annum. But it was the only option left to them. Economic insecurity coupled with extraordinarily extortionate money lending practices that exist in sex work sites, has always been part of the lives of sex workers.

The leadership questioned how the sex workers community would be able to strengthen their voices without having any sort of economic security for themselves? They engaged into a brief discussion and resolve the issue that they have to do something and to take a concrete step to address this issue. Finally thirteen sex workers among the leadership of Sonagachi decided to initiate a financial management system what could be managed and co-ordinated by themselves and that through registering a co-operative society. They are little knowing characters in the red light district of Sonagachi and no one probably would remember them in future and their name may not feature in any book of history. However the courage and commitment of these women with little or no literacy has made a history in the co-operative movement of West-Bengal, the success and progress of this co-operative which is named as USHA would justify their heroism in future.

Taking decision is one thing but to implement it was not an easy task either. They engaged some times in discussing to lay down policies and governing principles of the co-operative and finally submitted their paper to the department of co-operative. However they didn't know what was waiting for them. The co-operative department came up with the verdict that it is not possible to register a co-operative which would be run by the 'immoral sex workers'. It took months for them to persuade the said department to remove certain clauses from the Co-operative law particularly the morality clause. Thanks to the then Minister-in-Charge of Co-operative Department who finally took the pain to dissolve those clauses bringing a bill to the assembly what helps sex workers to register their co-operative society as a co-operative of 'sex workers', rather than being passed off as one of some ubiquitous 'housewives'. They were very straight-forward about their political goal. Getting registered as sex workers' co-operative they find a new hope to frame the definitions of sex work and to push its social acceptance as an occupation. This was the first instant where a state institution formally recognizes sex work as a legitimate profession. Even though the basic issue was to build a financial base, the leadership of sex workers' collective was politically astute to establish their rights what they consider is inseparable from their economic objective.

But all those moneylenders including other stakeholders in the red light district didn't leave them so easily. The caucus of moneylenders and big brothers makes their life even more difficult though strategizing all kinds of problems including initiating brutal physical violence e.g. beating, hurling bombs to USHA's members and other sex workers who showed interest in USHA. But they stood firm and continued to carry their work and adopt various struggles and tactics till they won the battle which is a long story altogether.

The registration of the co-operative nonetheless marks an important victory of the sex workers' rights movement in the country. Members of Usha are very clear in their minds that the co-operative shall not impose the so-called 'rehabilitation programs' for sex workers who have chosen and are willing to continue in the profession. Their co-operative is designed to provide financial support to sex workers who can save money as well as take loan when they fall back in moments of crisis, and to minimize their economic desperation by creating a space for negotiation.

If one looks back this co-operative of sex-workers one may have to accept that it is not just a simple co-operative from the points of its unique development and growth and its characteristics. It is extra ordinary in nature. At present, USHA has more than 25,000 registered members and its increasing turnover (25 crores rupees in the year 2015) is trumpeted as a success story of the co-operative movement in West Bengal. Based on the performance of all Multipurpose co-operative societies operating in the state of West Bengal, USHA ranked the best adjudged by the Department of Cooperatives, Government of West Bengal (2015). Each and every year, on an average, 3500 sex workers take loans from the co-operative and invest money in buying property, providing medical treatment to their parents and or enrolling children in educational institutions, support marriages of their sisters and so on and so forth.

USHA functions as a credit co-operative and gives loans to its members. USHA runs 'daily collection' scheme and its staffs are primarily from the sex workers community who visit door to door and collect money from the sex workers. In addition to that there are several products of USHA that members can avail of based on their needs and priorities. There are Savings Deposit, Recurring Deposit Scheme, Monthly Income Scheme, Fixed Deposit Scheme and others. USHA has also initiated various businesses which include social marketing of condoms and sanitary napkins and agro business. In order to make condoms available and accessible to sex workers and others who are at higher risk of acquiring HIV, the co-operative has expanded its marketing program throughout the state of West Bengal. USHA side by side provides vocational training for sex workers and their children and help establish market linkages so that they could be employed by others or can market their own products to enhance their income. The broad goal of USHA is primarily two—one is to enable sex workers and their families to ensure economic security, secondly to establish dignity and citizenship rights of the sex workers and their family members. To achieve the stated objective USHA lends its support to various advocacy programs as well as activism carried out by the collective to establish their rights and dignity with the profit earned through its business wing. USHA co-operative is a strong and active partner in community development program for sex workers and their children. To mention a few :

*    USHA Provides financial grants to run the hostel meant for the children of sex workers, which accommodate around eighty children who live in the hostel situated in Baruipur who studied in the mainstream school.

*    USHA provides financial grants to Durbar Sports Academy which helps to build skills and offer career building opportunities for the children of sex workers in various sports with prime focus to football.

*   USHA provides free Ration to economically distressed HIV positive women on a regular basis.

Impact of USHA could be measured from changes what was made possible through various initiatives of USHA:

1.    USHA co-operative is run and managed by the board of directors who are all sex workers by themselves. This has shown to the world that sex workers do have their agency and their capability to run a financial institution of this kind.

2.   Condom usage rate among sex workers has increased from barely 3% (1992) to a promising 93% (2014) what in turn has reduced the transmission of STIs and HIV from the sex workers to societal members and vice versa.

3.   Improvement of economic security has bolstered confidence levels among the sex-workers in dealing with other stakeholders of sex trade such as police, local goons, local money-lenders and others.

4.   USHA indirectly has helped to address stigma and discrimination attached to sex workers and their children though helping children of sex workers in developing this own collective called 'Amra Padatik' (we the foot soldiers) which has spearheaded in dealing with various social evils e.g. child marriage, dowry, child trafficking, drug abuse etc.

5.   USHA's contribution has increased school enrollment of children of sex workers, as well as increase in retention in schools. Number of students completing Secondary and Higher Secondary education among these kids has increased in successive years, including their access to higher education.

USHA has played and is playing an important role to bolster the political movement to establish right and dignity of sex workers as well as their access to citizenship rights. As the Pass Book of USHA has been accepted as the proof of residence by various Govt. Departments; with the Pass Book of USHA sex workers now can procure Voter Card, Aadhaar Card, Passport etc. Thus USHA in turn has helped sex workers' access to various social entitlements, e.g. to secure BPL card and get access to old age pension and other schemes for them and for their children what was not previously accessible to them.

Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016