By Aishik Chanda
Kolkata, December 31 (The New Indian Express): When I last visited Kolkata’s red light district, Sonagachi (only in a manner of speaking), I found the ladies hiding the 100 rupee notes under their pillows. They were being kind to customers who couldn’t pay in legal tender because of demonetization. Credit was the major coping mechanism I saw in Sonagachi, famous as Asia’s biggest red light district, if there’s such a thing.
Back there after Christmas, I found that the 10,000 sex workers of Sonagachi had switched enthusiastically to cashless transactions, mainly PayTM but also card-swiping machines.
I asked Mantu, a pimp from Bihar, how it’s been. He explained the reason for the mass switchover to cashless. In his own words: “Many of my customers demand whole night booking, for which I charge Rs 6,000 including an hour-long nude dance and then sex. But the ATM withdrawal limit is only Rs 2,000 and the local SBI branch is allowing only Rs 2,500. So we decided to move to PayTM. Why not? Even cigarette sellers have moved to cashless.”
Sex worker Varsha from Agra narrated how she made the crossover to cashless: “Hamare khaane ke laale padh gaye they (demonetization had hit our stomachs). Innovation was necessary. So our ‘mashi’ (the madam) was taught by a broker to transfer money from the customer’s account to her account, after which she would transfer my cut to my account.”
The pimps took the lead in teaching the sex workers how to. “We had to learn it for our business sake,” said Kader, a pimp from Bidar. “The money is first paid to the head sex-worker. We then take our commission.”
However, thee’s a seamy side to the story. Many of the sex workers have children and are finding it difficult to cope in the cashless world. Devika Biswas, a sex worker from of Hooghly district, told me she has a three-year-old boy. “If I deal entirely cashless, how will I feed him? So I insist on cash from the customer. If he doesn’t have enough, I ask him to give me my cut in cash,” she said.