Guwahati: The Gauhati high court in an interim order passed on Friday directed the deputy commissioner of Cachar district to immediately provide free ration (rice, pulses, oil, among others) and items of daily need to sex workers and their families living in the Panpatty red light area. The COVID-19 pandemic has left sex workers jobless and pushed them into penury over the past year.
Panpatty in Silchar is considered to be the northeast’s only red light area, with a number of brothels and is home to hundreds of sex workers. Due to the lack of ration cards and other civic entitlements, these sex workers have not been able to receive any government aid amidst the raging pandemic.
The interim order comes after a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed on May 21 at the Gauhati Court by Debajit Gupta, an activist based in Silchar, to highlight the deplorable conditions of sex workers and their families brought upon them by the pandemic.
The court directed the deputy commissioner of Cachar district as well as the secretary, District Legal Services Authority to “immediately provide ration to these families”.
The state chapter of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) also impleaded in the litigation after the petitioner conducted two-fact finding missions at the red light area in the course of the past five months.
The high court order stated, “We have been informed that deputy commissioner, Cachar, has already identified these sex workers and their families, since a project is being run under the DC [deputy commissioner] and by NACO [National AIDS Control Organisation]. Since it is an urgent situation, let the above ration be provided to them today itself.”
In the petition, Debajit Gupta stated that in the course of the fact-finding mission at Panpatty found that the sex workers, on account of losing their livelihood for the past one year due to the pandemic, are living miserable lives.
Gupta also found that the sex workers were not receiving any subsidised food grains under the National Food Security Act, 2013.
The petitioner also pointed out that the red light area has several children within the age groups between six months and six years along with pregnant mothers and lactating mothers, who are entitled to nutritious food items from the local Anganwadi centre under the Supplementary Nutrition Programme of the government of India, but was deprived of any such benefits.
The Wire reached out to Gupta and he said, “The sex workers couldn’t even avail any benefits under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. Then there are children in the age group of three to six years and are supposed to have access to pre-school education. But nothing was being done so. The sex workers and their families are deprived of basic dignity. Stigmatisation from society has rendered them more marginalised than ever before. “
He also added, “The COVID-19 pandemic has already added to their woes but what was unfortunate that the state government has no plans in place to give them any relief. This is a violation of their fundamental right to live with dignity, health and other basic rights.”
HRLN had also moved an impleadment application to implead the government of India, as represented by the secretary of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and NACO, as represented by the secretary of the Department of Health and Family Welfare (Government of India).
The high court allowed the application for impleadment making the departments as respondents.
Debasmita Ghosh of HRLN told The Wire that Gupta in February had assisted sex workers in submitting their applications for ration cards.
“They are yet to receive their ration cards. Some of the sex workers had applied for ration cards a few years ago. But they are still waiting. There are around 220 families at Panpatty. Ration card is a big issue for sex workers, and this is a permanent solution to get access to rations. There have been some philanthropic measures taken by some people and organisations. But the sex workers and their families require a permanent safety net that could save them from starvation. There are also former sex workers who are old and cannot go back to their native places. These people have nowhere to go, and they have lost their old identities,” Ghosh said.
The legal counsel for the petitioner HRLN had also placed before the high court a Supreme Court order dated September 29, 2020 that dealt with the same issue as raised by Debajit Gupta in his petition.
The apex court order stated, “Sex workers have been badly affected due to loss of earnings during the pandemic. Various schemes floated by the union government and the state governments to help the destitute have not reached the sex workers. The reason for sex workers not having access to the schemes is the lack of proof of identity. It is incumbent on the central government and the state governments/union territories to rescue the sex workers who are in dire straits.”
The apex court order also directed the state governments and the union territories to provide sex workers, who are identified by NACO, with dry rations without insisting on proof of identity. The District Legal Services, as directed by the order, ‘are to take active steps in assisting the distribution of dry rations to the sex workers without insisting on proof of identity.