Dr Smarajit Jana's Pioneering Work Removed Stigma, Ensured Rights for Sex Workers

Jana founded Durbar, a collective of sex workers, in 1995 to fight for their rights, economic empowerment, dignity and social justice.

Dr Smarajit Jana, who passed away on May 8, was a man on a mission. But in a country where one has become inured to bluster and bluff, this man never held forth. He just worked non-stop. And he achieved a slow, steady miracle. He worked for decades for the dignity, rights and welfare of a group generally scorned and despised by Bengal’s bhadralok – the Sonagachi sex workers.

But, that’s not quite correct. Almost everyone loves to look down on sex workers, not just our bhadralok. Despite the fact that the very men who wouldn’t want their wives anywhere near these women, often creep surreptitiously to them for relief, for what they whine their wives won’t give them.

The difference was Jana was not merely a social worker. He was revolutionary, in that for perhaps the first time in India, someone talked about rights for sex workers. Jana blazed a trail. He bandied the phrase social justice about like a banner. He proclaimed persistently that they had a right to dignity and decency. When Jana first started using those terms, decency and dignity, basic human rights and social justice, they were considered almost an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, used in conjunction with sex workers.

It took a very special sort of person to make that leap of faith.

He had started out working on something different, but for a doctor, something relatively understandable. He started an HIV sensitisation mission in the red-light area of Sonagachi, Kolkata. Although Jana was a member of the National AIDS Control Organisation’s (NACO) steering committee, he was a thinking person. He soon realised that mere technological interventions would not suffice. He was moved by the plight of these exploited, impoverished, trafficked women, despised as the dregs of society, even by those who made use of both their bodies and their incomes. It touched a chord.

Not many doctors could have moved from the well-trodden path of curative care to the immensely difficult challenge of fighting for community change. Jana founded Durbar, or Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, in 1995. A cooperative to fight HIV but also to empower (a much-abused, appropriated word often liberally strewn around funding proposals for women’s groups) the sex workers of Sonagachi.

Also read: Kicking Stigma Away, a Young Team from Bengal Heads for an International Football Tournament

I met the good doctor when I visited him in Kolkata in 2004 to cover the pathbreaking work he had initiated. I was both ashamed and indignant, that I had never heard of him or Durbar. And that it had taken an Oxford editor’s commissioned story to introduce us. Adding insult to injury was the fact that I am a Kolkatan, born and bred.

“What inspired you to start such an extraordinary project?” I asked Jana.

“Everyone wanted a successful HIV/AIDS project,” he replied. “I was sent to do this but soon realised the basic scientific premise was flawed. The entire global scientific community working on HIV/AIDS assumed that the battle could be won using information (awareness) and technology (condoms). I realised pretty fast that the women were not in control of their lives. Their clients, pimps, partners and madams controlled them. They were frequently harassed, arrested and often beaten and raped by the police. The economic exploitation by money lenders was beyond belief. We realised soon enough that only by empowering them collectively, by addressing their economic, political and social exclusion, could we succeed.”

“Of course, this was simpler in theory than in practice. With thousands of sex workers, it is a buyers’ market. The macho males paying the money didn’t want condoms. So even if 10 sex workers refuse sex without condoms they find an eleventh desperate and willing. That’s it. The system collapses. Every single sex worker had to stand firm, stick by the collective decision. There was no way it would work without the power equation changing.”

He continued, “We changed our thinking completely – began addressing the women’s concerns, not just health. The biggest problem was indebtedness. If we were fighting for the rights of these women based on their needs and perceptions, we had to end their economic exploitation.” And this was what Durbar, or Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, inspired by Jana did.

Durbar cooperative 

Durbar was formed to stop the exploitation of the sex workers and it succeeded. The madams, pimps and men who lived off the women could no longer intimidate them. Starting small, the women collectively created a cooperative. To stop pimps and babus (the men who were live-in partners) taking away all their earnings, a member went from house to house every morning to collect the previous nights’ earnings.

Total financial transparency ensured that gradually, the women became financially educated, many became literate and all of them were extracted from the clutches of exploitative, avaricious money lenders.

By the start of 2004, its working capital had reached Rs 25 million ($550,000), its annual turnover Rs 52 million ($1.2 million). The women had discovered the power of unity and the cooperative. Durbar was the talk of the town, the collective became the toast of Communist Calcutta.

My favourite interview as I weaved in and out of Sonagachi brothels was a woman who gleefully recounted the old days. The women sought permission to register their cooperative. Predictably, the government refused. Prostitution was illegal in India under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act. The sex workers were advised to register as a cooperative of ‘housewives’.

The feisty women would not be put down. One firebrand retorted: “The only way I can become a housewife is if you agree to marry me. Are you up to it?” The embarrassed IAS officer literally ran out of the room.

Sixteen years later, Jana’s work has been hailed everywhere. In a macabre twist of fate, when he passed away aged 68, he was also a member of the National Task Force on COVID-19.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee bade farewell to the much-loved doctor, “the champion of marginalised and stigmatised women”. But though the accolades pour in, it is the women of Sonagachi who will mourn his passing as the man who put his life and his entire being into fighting for them. The man who single handedly changed their lives.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a freelance writer based in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu.