India Elections: A small car, sex-workers and the vote


I have wanted to write about Sonagacchi since I moved back to Kolkata for one reason: in a country where morality is all pervasive, here exists an isolated world, centuries old, which has lived and grown with India’s democracy.

In the beginning, Sonagacchi — literally ‘The Golden Tree’ in Bengali — was where the city’s well-to-do gentlemen housed their mistresses during the days of the British Raj. Today, it has transformed into a massive red-light district; the once grand mansions converted into tiny flats which are rented out to the women who ply their trade there.

I went to Sonagacchi last week, with my colleague Sumati Yengkhom of The Times of India as my guide and guardian, to see for myself what life there is like. More significantly, though, I went there to try and understand what matters to the women there, a week before the district, along with large parts of the country, went to the hustings.

This elections, the electoral discussions in West Bengal has been dominated by the withdrawal of the Tata project from Singur — where the cheapest car in the world was to be produced — and the violence over land acquisition that rocked Nandigram in 2007.

In Sonagacchi, I discovered that very little influences the women there except for the trials and tribulations of their daily lives.

Filth and feces that line the narrow lanes of Asia’s largest red light district come close to overpowering the senses. But with a mere handful of sex-workers wandering about this early in the afternoon, it is the poll paraphernalia that squarely catches one’s attention in Sonagacchi.

The ubiquitous wall graffiti, custom-designed flex posters and an array of party flags breathe life into the squalid dank alleyways. Under tall, dilapidated buildings that come together crowding the narrow sliver of sky above, a group of sex workers sit nonchalantly. With her back against a bright poll graffiti, a middle-aged woman talks after a little persuasion.

"We have no interest in party politics. All I care about is who will do the most for the women who ply their trade here, their children and families. My vote will go not to those who merely hear our demands, but those who do something about them," she says. The unfulfilled promises of many an election evident in her terse tone.

Squatting beside the dark fetid waters that rise out of ancient drains, another woman, with a sharp streak of vermilion on her forehead, speaks in clearer terms. " Nandigram and Singur have little resonance here. We are women who live and work here. We need to think about our lives. No other issue will dominate the voting," she declares through her betel-stained teeth. Those that sit around her nod in agreement.

Singur might not sway the votes of the scarlet women of Sonagacchi, but they are anything but reluctant to exit the electoral loop. Indeed, it is this determination to honorably cast their ballots that has driven ‘Durbar’ — the local sex workers forum — to procure voters identity cards.

"There are 9,000 sex workers in Sonagacchi. Although most of them have their names on the voter list, barely 10% have voter identity cards. That is why we approached the Election Commission and, so far, we have been able to get about 300 new cards issued for sex workers residing here," Durbar’s project director Bharati Dey revealed.

The number of new voter identity cards might yet be disproportional to the actual population here, but the very fact that sex workers — who have little or nothing in the way of legal documents to prove their identity — are been officially given the mandate to vote, is igniting interest in the hustings.

But mere interest will not be enough to avoid illegitimate voting on May 13, when the approximately 11,000 adult franchise holders of Sonagacchi will queue up to vote. The red light district, unfortunately, has a history of unregistered voters casting their ballot in large numbers.

"During every election, the party cadres come and take our girls to vote even though they don’t have voter cards. Sometimes their names aren’t even on the list. Yes, more girls have cards this time, but this will still happen. We are just asking them not to vote more than once this time," a sex worker at Durbar disclosed, while labouring on her Bengali alphabets.

Outside, the narrow lanes begin to fill as the twilight deepens. As numerous gaudily-painted women descend for a night of work, few are in the mood to answer questions. "I am a citizen of this country too. Card or no card, I will vote. There’s nothing more I have to say," one dispatches sharply. The neighbor shouts loudly in agreement through a grilled window. Now is not the time for talk.

Here in Sonagacchi, where the world’s oldest profession will shortly confront the world’s largest democracy, the poll rhetoric that has engulfed Bengal holds little weight. It is the local ground realities that matter here, not the small car which never drove out of Singur.

This story appeared in The Times of India, Kolkata edition, on May 11, 2009.