Work has stopped for Seema after the lockdown began. She lives in the red light area in Delhi’s Najafgarh and belongs to the Perna community, which has seen generations of women pushed into the sex trade. Money is drying up and she has four children to feed.

“We buy a kilo of atta [wheat flour] for Rs 20 and most of it goes in feeding the children,” Seema said. Vegetables are scarce. If they are lucky, a chilli or a tomato may be eaten with the rotis. For the four adults in the house, there is little to go around.

Seema said she has a ration card but they have used up their month’s quota. “No one is coming to distribute food,” she claimed. “And who is going outside? There is no food, no water. We are dying of hunger.”

Zones of exclusion

As India went into lockdown on March 24 to combat the coronavirus pandemic, millions were left without food or work. Migrant workers stranded far from home started walking hundreds of kilometres, some collapsing from exhaustion, others rounded up and crammed into temporary shelters.

But hundreds of others were stranded inside their homes, including women and families living in red light areas across India. Most sex workers earn daily wages. But the lockdown and fear of contagion has kept clients away and there is no telling when they will return.

Urmi Basu, who runs New Light, a charitable trust working in red light areas in Kolkata, spoke of “despondency” among sex workers in Kalighat. “They say if a stranger comes into our house, we don’t know if he is sick,” explained Basu. “This is like HIV. Except with HIV, you had protections. But what do you do here?”

Most residents of red light areas live in cramped quarters, with poor sanitation and often no running water, ruling out social distancing and other hygiene measures that are supposed to contain the virus. Should a case of Covid-19 be detected in these areas, it would spread like wildfire, social workers as well as residents of red light districts fear.

The pandemic has made some of India’s most vulnerable populations even more precarious – lockdowns here are more strictly enforced but that has cut off access to food and work, which means shrinking resources to pay rents.

Despite harsher lockdowns, there seems to be little additional support from the state. Women from red light areas in Delhi, Bihar and West Bengal spoke of being forgotten by the government. Many lacked ration cards because they did not have the documents to show for it. Even those who did have cards said they had fallen through the cracks of the public distribution system.

“I have not seen a lot of government systems working,” said Kashina Kareem of Prerana, an anti-trafficking organisation based in Mumbai. “The Union government promised there would be free supplies to vulnerable sections of society, but that has not happened. The state government said it would distribute additional free supplies from April 15 but we have to see how that works out.”

Mumbai’s largest red light area, Kamathipura, and the neighbouring Faulkland Road are cordoned off by the police, who keep a stern eye on all movements, Kareem said. Volunteers trying to distribute food here have to work through them. Organisations like Prerana were also finding it hard to source large consignments of food. They relied on e-retailers who were also running low because of supply bottlenecks, Kareem explained.

Still, across cities, non-governmental organisations have stepped up to do the work of governments, whether it is distributing food or making sure women in red light areas do not lose their homes.

‘I sold my jewellery’

“I had some jewellery so I sold that to buy rice,” said 30-year-old Fatima Khatun, who lives in the red light area in Forbesganj in Bihar. There was no other way to feed the 11 people in her household, including her six children. They live in a single room partitioned into three sections, with no toilet.

In normal times, the children go to boarding school, supported by Apne Aap, a charitable organisation. But now the schools are shut and they are back home. For Fatima, who works with Apne Aap, this means more mouths to feed.

Although they have a ration card and a below poverty line card, Fatima said, “the government does not give us anything”. Years ago, she and other women in the area had banded together to get rations but were met with insults from the middlemen. “Now they make a fuss about Aadhaar cards,” she said. After the Supreme Court judgment of 2018, ration cards have to be linked to Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique identity number.

Fatima buys dal and rice with the money she has but even reaching the shops is difficult. “Police bahut bhayanak hai [the police are very scary],” she said. “They don’t let us leave the house. They don’t even listen if you say you are going to get something.”

Fatima Khatun (in brown), who volunteers with Apne Aap in Forbesganj, Bihar.

‘We have growing children’

In Sonagachhi, Kolkata’s busy red light district, Keya has only Rs 1,500 left. “I have been sitting without work for a month,” she said. “We don’t know what to do, where to go. If this goes on for three months, how will we eat?”

Keya lives in a household of six people, including her 14-year-old son, who is back home from school. Like many women in Sonagachhi, Keya has travelled miles away from her home to work there. Her Aadhaar and ration card are linked to her hometown, which means she cannot draw rations from Kolkata.

“Whatever is available here is exorbitantly expensive,” she said. “A packet of Maggi that cost Rs 12 is now Rs 18. Rice that was Rs 23 a kilo before is now Rs 50. The price of potatoes and onions has also shot up.” Rising prices and shrinking savings means sources of protein like fish and meat have gone off the menu for a month now. So have vegetables. “We buy a little at a time and eat sparingly,” she said.

Elsewhere in Sonagachhi, she has heard that charitable organisations have distributed food and the local state legislator doled out packets of rice. She has got none of it and even if she did, it would not last them long. “Is two kilos of rice enough for a week?” she asked. “We have growing children in the house. Each day, we cook about a kilo of rice.”

Keya [left], who lives in Kolkata's Sonagachhi area, worries about rising prices.

Rachna Nayak, who works with Apne Aap, said in one area they had tied up with the local ward councillor to distribute food. “The government is giving some food,” she said. “But it is not enough if you distribute it only on one day and in low quantities.”

The red light area in Kalighat, which is across the road from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s home, is relatively well-provided for. Politicians from across parties had descended on the area to dole out food, said Basu. “They don’t come inside the red light area,” she said. “It is all from the main road.”

Basu’s trust, New Light, also distributed food hampers with raw rations that could be cooked in community kitchens. Their children’s shelter in Kalighat has also stayed open. Many of the children who grew up in the Kalighat shelter have now become volunteers who distribute food in the community.

In Sonagachhi, all such shelters, which provided food and day-care facilities for the children of sex workers, have shut down.

‘We need raw rations’

Back in Delhi’s Najafgarh area, Deepmala wants raw rations. “We are getting cooked meals from the government or sometimes from the police,” she said. Civil defence volunteers, who have signed up with the government to help contain the virus, also distribute food, she said. “But they give four-five rotis, which does not cover everyone. And they come two or three times a week. Sometimes, we have to queue for two or three hours to get food. By then our children are starving.”

Deepmala lives in a household of 17 people, including her own children. If raw rations were available, she could cook and feed them whenever needed. Her sister is the household member with a ration card, which is just enough to feed her own children. The extended family have now fallen back on the Rs 2,500 a month that her mother gets as a widow’s pension from the government.

Sex work is not the only livelihood that has dried up in Najagarh. The slums are an intricate patchwork of communities, most of which were once nomadic and are still defined by traditional livelihoods. Deepmala belongs to the Sapera, or snake charming, community. In regular times, her brothers and brother-in-law still travel from door to door with monkeys and other animals. Sometimes, they play in wedding bands. On an average, they earn Rs 150-Rs 200 a day, but that income has now vanished.

The Banjaras in Najafgarh, Deepmala said, sold cosmetics and underwear. The Sangi community made a living selling earthen toys. The Dehas wove baskets. But all livelihoods depend on trade and travel, the usual bustle of everyday life. “This was the season to earn but everything has stopped,” said Deepmala.

In these closely knit communities, social distancing is beyond imagination. People sit on doorsteps lining the alleys or pull on hookahs in courtyards. Deepmala’s house is one of the few fitted with a toilet. Several neighbours use it regularly. “What to do? They are from our community,” she explained.

Residents of a red light area in Delhi take some air during the lockdown.

Thrown out

While food runs low, many in red light areas are faced with the spectre of homelessness. Ruchira Gupta, who runs Apne Aap and has been distributing food in red light areas, said she knew of women and children who had been turned out because they could not make the rent. In Sonagachhi, two woman who had been thrown out of their brothel rooms had taken up residence on a bench with their children. They were sleeping in shifts, Gupta said.

In Mumbai, rent piles up as debt. “In Kamathipura and Falkland Road, you pay rent to the brothel keeper,” said Kareem. “So you end up borrowing from local money lenders at high interest rates. Or the brothel keeper will keep charging money with interest, saying this is what the woman owes them.”

In Kalighat, women renting rooms have some reprieve. “We have made it very clear to the brothel owners that nobody is going to ask for room rent right now,” said Basu of New Light. “After the lockdown is over, we will have a meeting and tell them no brothel owner is to ask for rent for three months.”

But in Sonagachhi, Keya and her roommates pay a heft Rs 15,000 in rent. She does not know how they will find the money. Already, her friend, who lives in the same house, has pawned a ring to buy food. “We never thought we would be in this situation,” sighed Keya.