Kolkata: Pandemic Hits India's Only Bank For and By Sex Workers As Depositors Withdraw Savings

The loss of the bank's income reflects how the pandemic has impacted sex workers financially.

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Kolkata: The Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society Limited, India’s only and South Asia’s largest financial institution exclusively run by and for sex workers, has been hit by the two waves of the pandemic, as it witnessed a significant loss of income since the beginning of the pandemic-related lockdowns early last year.

“The cooperative bank has financially weakened during the pandemic. If we are receiving deposits of about Rs 30-35 lakh per month, the withdrawal is on average Rs 50 lakh per month,” said Shantanu Chatterjee, the bank’s financial manager.

Chatterjee said that they were losing out on bank interests, as they had to withdraw some large fixed deposits. They were also losing out on income from investments, as they had to withdraw some investments to pay the depositors.

“We are still making profits, mostly due to income from fixed assets and from diversified activities, such as sales of condoms (with 1 paisa profit per condom), sanitary napkins, sanitisers and masks,” he said. Being a multipurpose cooperative society, the bank has many allied activities.

The bank used to pay depositors a significantly higher interest (6% on savings account) than other nationalised and private banks. Since the deposits have thinned, the payment as interest has reduced, too. This was another reason the bank was still making profits.

Starting in 1995 with 13 sex workers as members and Rs 40,000 as a shared capital, the bank now has 36,000 members across West Bengal and a paid-up shared capital of Rs 35 lakh. From Rs 21 crore annual turnover in 2017-18, the bank recorded an annual turnover of Rs 27 crore in 2019-20.

However, since the audit for the financial year 2020-21 that coincided with the pandemic has not been done yet, the post-pandemic figures are not available.

Even during the pandemic, the bank has got over five thousand new members. But the reason is different: the government was acknowledging the passbook at the Usha cooperative bank as a document of residential proof for sex workers for the distribution of food coupons. Since it takes only Rs 115 to open an account at the bank, many sex workers, especially the ‘flying’ sex workers at Sonagachhi area, opened accounts at the bank and used its passbook to get the government’s food coupons, which would ensure free meals.

Also read: Ground Report: The Sudden Lockdown Has Dried Up Sex Workers’ Incomes Overnight

However, as the bank has taken a policy of lending on the basis of deposits, and not on the basis of mortgage, the borrowing has also thinned. Most sex workers had their deposits thinned and limited scope for borrowing. Since there is no recent survey on Sonagachhi’s sex workers’ post-pandemic financial status, there is no reliable information on how many of them had to take loans from private money lenders.

“Sex workers have been one of the worst-hit during this pandemic. They were totally out of income for the better part of the past 16 months. The government, different NGOs and our organisation have ensured they don’t go hungry but there are expenses beyond food. Those who stay at Sonagachhi have to pay their monthly rent and most of them also have to send home some money,” said Mahashweta Mukherjee, a spokesperson for Durbar Mahila Samannaya Committee, the largest organisation of sex workers in India.

Based out of Sonagachhi in Kolkata, Asia’s largest red-light area, Durbar is also the organisation that steered the Usha cooperative bank.

Usha’s scheme allowing members to save as little as Rs 5 per day – which is collected from their door by the bank’s agents – has brought a significant positive impact on the lives of the state’s sex workers, especially those based in Sonagachhi. The bank performed so well that it has won awards – the state government recognised it as the best-run cooperative in 2014.

The economic impact on the bank is a reflection of the massive financial impact of the pandemic on sex workers.

During the first wave of the pandemic last year, the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) had conducted a study on 250 sex workers in West Bengal, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra and Kerala. Out of them, 30% had taken loans to meet regular expenses, while 47% had withdrawn from their savings in banks, an AINSW spokesperson said. Maharashtra-based Asha Care Trust, too, had conducted a survey last year that revealed a high share of sex workers took various kinds of loans, often from brothel owners or pimps, to survive through the troubled times.

Durbar Mahila Samannaya Committee had conducted a similar survey on sex workers in West Bengal during the pandemic last year. Of the 615 sex workers, 60% had spoken of some kind of a loan.

A recent survey conducted by Tafteesh, a platform for anti-trafficking stakeholders, including lawyers, researchers, psychologists, social workers and survivors of trafficking, has revealed that members of trafficking survivor collectives have also got trapped in debts.

“The analysis also showed that the pandemic and accompanying restrictions have aggravated the economic condition of women in sex work who were already in a precarious situation being outside of the social protection mechanism. During this period, their debt amounts have increased exorbitantly. Out of the 142 survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and women in sex work analysed for the research, 99 have taken loans ranging between Rs 5,000 and Rs 5,50,000 during the second wave,” said the report.

The study was conducted in West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh in May 2021. The rate of interest ranges from 2% per month to 20% per month.

According to Priti Patkar, a Maharashtra-based social activist working with sex workers in the state, many sex workers were forced to take loans from private lenders at higher interest rates during the first wave of the pandemic.

“We conducted a survey during the first wave which revealed sex workers were taking loans to survive. For their daily meals, they were entirely dependent on donations. We have not conducted any such survey during the second wave, but we have heard the same thing has happened this time, too,” said Patkar, who leads the NGO, Prerana.

She added that the Maharashtra government did offer some financial relief but it did not reach all.