The country’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Indian government should include sex workers in digital systems that provide access to voting and social benefits.
The Supreme Court of India on Tuesday said that federal and local bodies must issue voter and ration cards to sex workers. The panel of three judges also said that they should be registered in the affidavit, adding that the biometric system would cover the entire country where it is important to receive welfare benefits.
“Every citizen of the country is guaranteed fundamental rights regardless of his occupation,” the Supreme Court of India said on Tuesday. “It is the duty of the government to provide basic amenities to the citizens of the country.”
The court heard a petition filed by the Durbar Mahila Coordinating Committee of Sex Workers, based in Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, highlighting the problems faced by sex workers during corona virus outbreaks. The consortium, which has more than 130,000 registered members, said sex workers face poverty and called for relief measures for female and transgender sex workers across India.
“Giving citizenship identity to sex workers is a great achievement,” said Biplob Mukherjee, a joint adviser, in a telephone interview from Kolkata. “It covers the years of struggle and decades of suffering of hundreds of thousands of sex workers in this country.”
Prostitution is legal in India. But running a brothel and other related activities, including solicitation and pimping, are not. Rights groups estimate there are about 900,000 sex workers in India. Most say they were pushed into trade by suppressing poverty and sometimes forced by human traffickers.
In interviews, two prostitutes said they lost their jobs during epidemics, especially after the government imposed a strict lockout last year to combat the first wave. This led to the exodus of migrant workers, who were the main clients of prostitutes, returning to their homes far away from major cities.
One of them, a prostitute by the real name of Preeti in New Delhi, said she was locked up in her little house without money during Lockdown. She may have died of starvation if not for the gurudwaras and Sikh temples that cater to the poor. She asked not to use her full name because of the stigma surrounding prostitution.
The Darbar Mahila Coordinating Committee filed its original petition a decade ago in an attempt to win security under the Indian Constitution. In September 2020, the court cited an earlier order directing state governments to provide dry food items to sex workers without the need for an identity card.
On Tuesday the court asked that a status report on the order be filed within four weeks. Meanwhile, it said governments should provide documents for sex workers.
Last year, sex workers suffered a setback after the country’s National Human Rights Commission reversed its earlier decision to direct state governments to recognize sex workers as informal workers.
The court approached the government to provide rations in response to a number of appeals by prosecuting groups, following a joint study that found that less than half of the government’s food program for the poor benefits sex workers. The majority are out of work.
Gitanjali Pappar, an activist working for the benefit of more than 1,000 sex workers in an area of New Delhi, said some government and private groups provide food and other assistance. But he said it did not help those who could not afford to pay rent, school fees for children and debt.
“It’s not just about subsidized rice, it’s about dignity. Why can’t sex workers have the same benefits as other citizens of the country? She said.