Delhi’s Red Light Area: The Vote Is Valued Even If Parties Are Not
Hope battles cynicism every hour in the grimy corridors of Delhi's red light area where scores of women eke out a tenuous existence as sex workers.
As elections pick up pace, the women of G B Road alternate between despair at a political system deaf to their demands and the yearning to be heard in the great election bazaar of 2019.
Trapped in claustrophobic cubbyholes opening into ‘pan’-stained corridors, many sex workers, robbed of chances to exercise choice in their lives, expressed disillusionment, saying they have little or no hope from any of the parties that knock at their doors every five years.
But in a reaffirmation of the system, however flawed in their world view, they also said they know the value of their vote. Some have even traveled back home to places like West Bengal, notwithstanding the cost involved, to exercise their franchise.
Most of the women said they have voter ID cards and it does not matter who they vote for. But the little card is a symbol of empowerment for them.
"We don't have hopes from any political party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, I voted for one party. In this election, I will vote for another without any expectation from any of them," said Sangeeta, a resident of a ‘kotha' on the first floor accessed by steep stairs littered with 'gutkha' packets and splattered with 'pan' stains.
Sangeeta, who goes by only one name, took to the profession around 17 years ago.
In her late 30s, Sangeeta said she starting voting only nine years ago.
Many women in her family, based in Agra, are also in the flesh trade and she has no regrets.
In her sister Shabnam's view, the vote signifies identity.
"If we won't vote, how will be identified as citizens of this country? We do what we want to do. Nobody can question us, she said.
At Kotha Number 54, separated by just a wall from Sangeeta and Shabnam, the mood is resentful, even angry.
Each 'kotha', usually spread over two floors, houses about 15 to 20 women who operate from airless rooms segregated into cubicles so narrow they barely hold a single bed.
Several women said circumstances pushed them into becoming sex workers.
The narratives are different, the stories the same.
Some said they were abandoned by their husbands, others that they were shunned after they were widowed and still others who were pushed into a life of exploitation by families too poor to provide for them.
But politicians, governmental neglect and the elections are very much on their minds.
From demonetisation and garbage at the doorstep to legalising sex work and pension, the women bring up varied issues.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetised high value currency notes in November 2016 and it still hurts, they said.
"We have suffered a lot under the Modi government. After demonetisation we starved for almost three months. We earn Rs 250 to Rs 500 from one customer. During those days, our customers would come with old notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 and we could not take them since we have no bank accounts, said Pooja.
It's a tough life that gets tougher as they grow older.
"Our profession should be legalised. Once women cross their prime, they do not get customers, said Pooja's friend Roma, who is her 50s.
"The government should think about a shelter home for us or bring a law which has provisions like rehabilitation, pension scheme, securing the future of our children and defines our working hours," she said.
Their asks also include the more immediate.
Pooja, for instance, raised the issue of garbage piled up outside the 'kothas' and said, "Children and elders have been falling ill. A few years ago, the Republic Day parade would pass from here and cleanliness was maintained. But that has stopped and no effort is taken to clear the mess.
She said they have raised the issue with political parties several times but get only assurances, no action.
Her roommate Reena added that the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government in Delhi had done a lot in terms of reducing their electricity and water bills. She, too, is furious about demonetisation.
Even during the Congress government, the rich and the poor survived in harmony but we suffered the after-effects of note-ban."
Close to Reena and Pooja lives Aarti, who has just returned after voting on April 18 in Siliguri, part of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency in West Bengal.
"Be it the Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha elections, I ensure I always cast my vote. We are citizens of this country and it's our responsibility to exercise our right. It is not an easy task for me to arrange money for travelling so far but I save money and also sacrifice my daily wage to vote."
Drawn from all corners of the country, many other members of the G B Road community are travelling or will head home, depending on the poll schedule.
"Governments might not have thought about us. But even if we are not getting anything, we can try so that others, including our family members, can reap some benefits," said Saraswati.
Spunky and spirited, the women said they will continue to make themselves heard.
Why are we looked down upon? Our work should be given respectability by the law and be legalised. That is what I want but I know it is a dream," said Asha.
G B Road falls in the Chandni Chowk constituency, which is seeing a contest between incumbent BJP MP Harsh Vardhan, Congress' Jai Prakash Prakash Agarwal and AAP's Pankaj Gupta.
(This story was auto-published from a syndicated feed. No part of the story has been edited by The Quint.)