The Supreme Court on Monday directed Centre & State Governments to provide food and financial aid to sex workers in a plea highlighting the distress faced by them on account of the ongoing pandemic.
A bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao & Hemant Gupta urged the Centre and State Government to urgently consider providing them relief in the form of dry rations, monetary assistance as well as masks, soaps and sanitizers without insisting on proof of identity.
"....we are of the opinion that the relief as sought for in the I.A needs immediate attention of this Court. The learned Additional Solicitor General and the learned counsel appearing for the State Governments are directed to get instructions regarding the modalities for distribution of monthly dry rations and cash transfer to the sex workers without insisting on proof of identity." - Supreme Court.
"They are in severe distress. This matter needs to be treated as urgent," the bench remarked orally while hearing the PIL filed on behalf of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the country's oldest sex workers' collective.
The collective is a party to proceedings [Buddhadev Karmaskar V. State of West Bengal & Ors.] in which a panel was set up to improve the living conditions of the community.
Appealing to the Supreme Court, which has held that:- "sex workers have a right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution of India since they are also human beings and their problems need to be addressed", the Kolkata based group highlighted that sex workers' have been left out of the COVID-19 response because of social stigma and marginalisation and are in frantic need of support.
DMSC's application pointed out that a large number of sex workers have been excluded from aid measures due to lack of, or deficiencies in their identity documents such as Aadhar and Ration cards. This, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had directed the Central and State Governments to ensure access to ration cards, voters identity cards and bank accounts, based on recommendations of a Court-appointed Panel in 2011 looking into rehabilitation and empowerment of sex workers.
The Application by the Collective suggested the following reliefs:-
DMSC also stated in in the plea that it had consulted and received inputs from various Community Based Organisations and NGOs working with sex workers across the country. The application cites a 5-state assessment undertaken by Taaras, a coalition of women in sex work and their organizations among 1,19,950 sex workers to draw attention to the challenges of the community in accessing critical services during the COVID-19, which included:-
Lack of access to social protection services: Sex workers do not have access to social protection measures such as pension, health benefits and labour rights. The five-state consultation shows that only 5% of sex workers had received a bank transfer of Rs 1000/- on the basis of a Labour Card for registered workers. Barring Tamil Nadu, where CBOs have managed to obtain labour cards for sex workers by enrolling them as domestic workers, vegetable vendors, street hawkers etc., no other State has extended this facility to persons engaged in sex work;
Lack of access to essential services: Around 48% members did not receive ration through PDS (Public Distribution System). Out of 26,527 members who reported illness, around 97% (25,699) are unable to access primary care services - both public and private. 20% of members have children attending private schools and of them, 95% (23,425) are not able to pay the schools fees. Of the approximate 61% of members who live in rental housing, 83% are unable to pay rent and electricity bills;
Impact on livelihood: Almost 71 % (81,433) members don't have any other source of income to meet their essential day to day needs. Even those who have some income are having difficulty in securing three meals a day for the past four months.
The PIL further highlights that the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India estimates that there are over 8.68 lakh female sex workers in the country and 62,137 Hijra/transgender persons in 17 states, of which, 62% are engaged in sex work.
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