The Supreme Court heard a PIL filed by the DMSC praying for the rehabilitation of sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court took notice of the distress and plight of the workers and urged the Governments to extend relief to them.
The Petitioner is the group Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, i.e., the country’s oldest sex workers’ collective based in Kolkata. The DMSC highlight in their petition the plight of sex workers in India. They have been neglected and left out due to the pervasive marginalization and social stigma from COVID-19 measures.
The application pointed towards the exclusion of a large number of sex workers from aids and measures. This is due to them being unable to produce Aadhar or Ration cards.
Further, the application adds, this is despite the order of the Supreme Court directing the State and Central Governments to ensure access to ration cards, voter identity cards, and bank accounts. This was based on the 2011 recommendations of a Panel on rehabilitation and empowerment of sex workers.
The plea referred to a 5-state assessment undertaken by the organization Taaras. They listed the following challenges faced by the 1,95,950 sex workers:
- Lack of access to social protection services. The assessment showed that only 5% of the workers had received the bank transfer of Rs 1000 on basis of Labour Card for registered workers. Tamil Nadu was the only exception where the CBOs enrol and get a Labour Card for the sex workers.
- Lack of access to essential services: Around 48% of members did not receive ration through PDS (Public Distribution System). Out of those who reported illness, 97% were unable to access primary health services. Out of the members having children, 95% are not able to pay the school fees. Further, 83% are not able to pay rent or electricity bills.
- Impact on livelihood. The assessment suggests that almost 71 % of members do not have any other source of income to meet their essential day to day needs. And even those who have some income are securing three meals a day for the past four months.
The PIL cites the figures by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. They estimated that there are over 8.68 lakh female sex workers in the country and 62,137 transgender persons in 17 states with 62% engaged in sex work.
The application suggests that till the continuation of this pandemic situation the sex workers must be provided with monthly dry rations, cash transfers of Rs 5000 per month, and extra cash transfers of Rs 2500 for those who have school-going children. Further, essential preventive measures such as masks, medicines, sanitizers, etc. should be delivered to them through Targeted Intervention Projects or the likes.
Further, the plea asks the court to direct the Center and State authorities to coordinate and check COVID-19 relief efforts through committees. The committees should comprise of people from health, social justice, and welfare departments along with representatives from National and State Legal Services Authorities and as well as CBOs.
Additionally, the petitioner prays to the Court to direct the State Labour Departments and the Unorganised Workers Social Security Board to register sex workers and ensure the benefits given to all unorganized workers are extended to them.
The division judge bench comprising of Justice L Nageswara Rao and Hemant Gupta heard this matter. They urged the Centre and State Government to provide the sex workers with essentials such as masks, soap, etc. along with dry ration and monetary help without proof of identity. The Court also remarks that the sex workers are in severe distress and need immediate attention.
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