Q&A with filmmakers Abeer Khan and Kunal Purohit

In light of the catastrophic impacts of the lockdownDowns about the poor in India, Collateral Global has commissioned a short film from the filmmakers Abeer-Khan (director, photographer and co-director) and Kunal Purohit (freelance journalist and co-director) on the plight of sex workers in India. Watch their film here.

Q. Could you tell us about the context in which you made the film?

Kunal: Abeer and I have previously reported on sex workers in Mumbai. So we both had a keen sense of the precarious life they led. When the pandemic hit and lockdown was imposed, their struggles only multiplied and for many of them, their very existence was at stake.

Even then, it was a challenge to make this film because Kamathipura can be a difficult region to cover. Anyone who walks around with a camera and a microphone is looked at with distrust, suspicion and contempt. Convincing women to share their stories and struggles with us has been a challenge. We wanted to understand the multiple effects of the lockdown and the pandemic on the lives of these women and therefore we even interviewed the families of these sex workers. Thanks to this, we even managed to see the struggles through the eyes of their children. Such conversations have helped us understand what cannot always be captured in data – the interrupted childhoods of these children, who were forced to grow up overnight and take jobs to support their family.

Q. This film focused on Mumbai – is there any data or evidence of situations experienced by sex workers in other major cities in India today?

Kunal: As the pandemic unfolded across the world, we saw sex workers around the world facing similar struggles – economic precariousness caused by a sudden loss of income, a thin layer of social security in the better, and the vulnerability caused by such desperation. In India, these difficulties have only multiplied. India’s social security structures have traditionally excluded sex workers and as a result, when the pandemic hit and large swaths of India’s poor faced hardship, sex workers were made even more invisible to the state. We have seen this repeated in different cities through surveys – in Pune85% of sex workers have been forced to take out loans just to subsist and often from owners and managers of brothels. Similar This was the case in Sonagachi, considered the largest red zone in Asia. All of this had prompted civil society groups to petition India’s highest court to order the state to extend social security coverage, in the form of free food rations, to sex workers.

Q. Could you describe a little bit about some of the difficulties faced by the people you interviewed in rebuilding their lives after the lockdowns? Why did the impacts of the lockdowns last beyond the time they were lifted?

Kunal: Even in the pre-pandemic world, sex workers in Kamathipura, where the film is set, had lived a precarious existence. Their incomes were always meager, sufficient to subsist. Costs, from rent to health care expenses, were still high. The ray of hope for most of them came from their children and most of the sex workers we met said they had prioritized their education over any other non-essential needs. That has now changed. The pandemic has pushed the most into crippling and unsustainable debt, pushing women to desperate levels in order to earn a living and start paying off those debts. Amid frequent closures and COVID-induced restrictions, their livelihoods have drastically diminished. All of this has also put their children’s education at risk – many families have pushed education costs lower on the list of priorities. Lack of state support, endless debts, debt-induced vulnerabilities, and a bleak future for their children have formed a powerful cocktail and made it difficult for sex workers to hope.

Q What does the data tell us about the condition of migrant workers in Indian cities nearly 2 years after the outbreak of the pandemic – has life returned to normal?

Kunal: The lack of adequate data on migrant domestic workers in India makes it difficult to justify the models, but based on anecdotal evidence, it is clear that most of them returned to urban centers in India. However, India’s vast informal sector has suffered greatly during the pandemic and this has had a severe impact on the earnings of migrant workers, most of whom are employed in the sector. As many as six million small businesses have collapsed, government says Data, so job opportunities have narrowed. Wages are depressed and workers are often working with lower wages than they were before the pandemic, desperate to keep their jobs.

Q How important is it to get stories like this into the public domain to tell the full story of India’s experience of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Kunal: India imposed the biggest lockdown in the world – it effectively locked down its 1.3 billion people except for essential sectors. He was revealed, through investigative journalistic efforts, that the lockdown was announced with little or no consultation. It has now emerged that the lockdown, combined with the pandemic, has pushed hundreds of millions into poverty, hunger and despair. Despite this, the confinement was announcement as a great success of the Indian state.

The reality, however, was very different, as evidenced by the stories of the women we met in Kamathipura. The lockdown has triggered a series of devastating effects on their lives, effects that they will have to endure for years. Such stories are important because they contradict the self-satisfied praise of the Indian state foreclosure. They are also important because they highlight evidence of the devastation wrought by the lockdown. Such evidence is essential to assess the effects of confinement, the data of which can be used to decide on the effectiveness of such confinements in the future.

Q How some of these effects have, in a real sense, reversed the progress these women have made – from financial independence to raising children, among others.

A beer: Women are considered a second gender and with covid followed by lockdown, the position of women has plunged even lower. For female students, migrating and studying in a metropolitan city not only provides a quality education, but also an opportunity to get away from the chains of houses/villages/shark towns. The lockdown was a huge setback for women enrolling in colleges across the city. And a tragedy for women who had fought for their education in the big cities, most female students were told to return home as the colleges were no longer functioning. Unable to find a reasonable excuse, many returned to their families.

Abeer Khan is a Mumbai-based filmmaker and photographer. His work can be discovered on https://www.abeerkhan.com/.

Kunal Purohit is an award-winning freelance journalist who reports on human interest and social justice issues: https://kunalpurohit1.contently.com/.