The Supreme Court on Monday directed the Centre and state governments to immediately provide monetary assistance, food supply and other basic amenities to sex workers, who have been rendered jobless since the coronavirus-induced lockdown began in March, The Hindu reported. The court said this should be done without insisting on documents such as ration cards.

The bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Hemant Gupta asked the Centre if it can exercise its power under the National Disaster Management Act to help sex workers during the crisis. “They are under severe distress now, something urgent has to be done,” Rao said. “This deals with the survival of lakhs of people...You [Centre and state governments] should do something without waiting for our directions.”

Rao also told Additional Solicitor General RS Suri, representing the Centre, that relief measures should not be restricted to just those who approach authorities for help, but efforts should also be made to reach out to those in need.

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, India’s oldest collective of sex workers, filed an application before the Supreme Court to seek support. The collective said the pandemic has destroyed their livelihoods and left the community impoverished, adding that sex workers are entitled to live with dignity, access to food, shelter and social protection.

“After the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, there was no work and no income,” the application said, according to Hindustan Times. “During April and May, sex workers scrimped through their meagre savings or took loans at exorbitant interest rates to survive. Most were dependent on the charity provided by individuals and philanthropic organisations.”

Senior advocate Anand Grover, representing the collective, said an assessment conducted in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu shows that only 52% of 1.2 lakh sex workers receive ration through the public distribution system. “The situation in other cities is even worse,” he added.

He argued that sex workers across the country should be given food without insisting on identity proof, a suggestion approved by the Supreme Court nine years ago while hearing a public interest litigation. “All state governments, local authorities and other appropriate authorities should issue ration cards to the sex workers, relaxing the rigours of the existing rules and/or requirements as to verification of address, without mentioning the profession in the document,” the suggestion said.

The court posted the matter for hearing on September 29 and asked state governments to come ready with their proposals to address the concerns of sex workers.