As West Bengal prepares to vote in a few days, sex-workers in the state despair over the unfulfilled promises made to them by political parties in the preceding elections and say they want "concrete" measures this time.
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, representing 1,50,000 sex workers in West Bengal, said they felt cheated because no political party had kept its promise to look into their demands, let alone fulfilling them.
"Whenever elections come, political parties make tall promises, but none of them is kept. We have been regularly placing a charter of demands for the last several years, but nothing has come of it," president of All-India Network for Sex Workers and Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee Bharati Dey said.
Frustrated, the roughly five million sex-workers in the country under the All India Network for Sex Workers (AINSW) want to exercise the NOTA (None of the above) option in ballot papers to express their disapproval, Dey said.
The AINSW is a national network of sex-workers across the country spread across 16 states.
"We will send letters to political parties listing our demands and raising issues that concern sex workers and their families," she said.
The demands that the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) has flagged over the years are: pension rights for retired sex workers, removal of Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), legalisation of the profession, covering sex-workers under labour laws and setting up of self-regulatory board for sex-workers to stop minors from being forced into the profession.
"None of these demands has been met by the respective state and central governments. But these are the basic rights which a sex worker needs to be given to be able to lead a proper life," said Mahasweta Mukherjee of the DMSC.
Parul, a 35-year-old sex-worker of Sonagachi, the biggest red light area in Asia said, "Minorities and backward classes get the attention which we do not. We also have family members who are also voters. So we should not be ignored, or else we will go in for the NOTA option," she said.
State Women Development and Social Empowerment Minister Sashi Panja said that the TMC government had taken several initiatives for the development of sex-workers and their children.
The project, christened ‘Muktir Alo’ (Light of Freedom), a pet project of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, is aimed at bringing back the sex workers and their children to the mainstream.
"This is the second phase of the rehabilitation programme for sex-workers and their family members as well as those girls who have been rescued from flesh trade," she said.
Under the project, the government wants to train them in dancing, acting and singing, so that they can get an opportunity in movies and serials, Panja said.