They live on the edges of society but the sex-workers of Sonagachi are victims of a very mainstream fraud, the Bengal chit funds.

Some of them had saved up for a daughter’s wedding, some for an ailing parent and some to help launch a son’s business. Some had saved for their twilight years. Now, they have lost it all. In a lesser known fallout of West Bengal’s chit fund scam, hundreds of the state’s sex workers have lost their life savings.

Living on the fringes of society, the sex workers of Sonagachi, the city’s largest red-light area, are desperate for any opportunity that will restore dignity to their lives. This vulnerability made them easy prey to the agents of Saradha and other chit-fund companies.

They have lost heavily, with amounts ranging from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 10 lakh. In most cases, they were duped by their own. Those acting as agents were none other than their own sons, who thought nothing of snaring their mothers and aunts in the trap.

“I do not so much rue the Rs. 25,000 I have lost in Saradha, but I cannot overcome the grief that someone I raised as my own son could do this to me,” rues Rina Chowdhury, who has been working the trade for nearly 16 years. She was saving for her daughter’s marriage. “What will I do now? What if she remains unmarried? I don’t want her to end up here like me,” she says, choking up.

The chit fund business has claimed lakhs of poor people in West Bengal as its victims. Companies collected crores of rupees from the poor, promising to double or triple their low investments. It was a fatal attraction. The Saradha Group, in which Rina invested, was among the largest of these businesses, with interests in realty, tourism, media and hospitality. It employed more than two lakh collection agents, who got commissions ranging from 15 – 40 per cent. It all unravelled when, in typical Ponzi fashion, the first defaults began, and investors started to complain.

This latest treachery has opened up old woundsin Sonagachi. “I was betrayed by the man I loved and hoped to marry. He sold me off here. That was 15 years ago. Today, I’ve been duped again,” says another woman, breaking into sobs.

Most are young but there are also the 50-plus women who are considered too old and sidelined by their ‘owners’. Dipali Roy has lost Rs 1.5 lakh to Saradha. “I will now have to beg for either customers or for alms,” she says. “I have lost my old age kitty. My family takes my money but doesn’t allow me into the house. Where will I go now?”

Unlike the villagers of rural Bengal, whose remoteness made them susceptible to the chit funds, the circumstances in Sonagachi are slightly different. These women were saving their surplus in an institution called Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society, a body registered under the States Cooperative Society Act. Santanu Chatterjee, manager, explains that it was an initiative of Durbar Mahila Swamanya Samity (a collective of sex workers) which wanted the cooperative bank to channelise the hard-earned money of the sex workers, which would otherwise either get squandered or plundered.

With branches in all districts, except Kurseong and Kalimpong, Usha was where these women squirreled away their surplus, taking loans from the bank whenever they were in need. Some saved Rs.10 a day, some Rs. 1,000, but save they did, with their money earning returns ranging from 7 per cent to 11 per cent.

The cooperative appointed agents from among the children of the sex workers, and they would go around collecting the deposits. Starting with 13 sex workers in 1995, Usha now has 19,772 members with a deposit-base of over Rs.12 crore.

When the Saracdha Group and others came in, many of these agents moved over to them in the hope of high commissions, and took the women along. Often, the women were told their money was going into Usha as usual, when actually it went into the chit funds. Some women changed over willingly, hoping to earn more interest. Chatterjee talks of how the change became noticeable from 2008. “A trend of heavy withdrawals was seen, even as fresh deposits started declining. Some said they were buying property back in their villages. It’s only now we find that the savings were diverted into these companies.”

Today, they have lost everything. Their dreams lie in shreds and many of them will have to go back to their dingy rooms, perhaps work extra shifts, to try and make up some of it. Usha estimates the total loss in the area, for the sex workers and the people connected to them, at Rs. 10 crore.

Police complaints have been filed and they sit around praying for some relief. As I leave the area, desperate calls ring in my ears. “Didi, please help us.”

Quick Facts

_ Sonagachi is Kolkatta’s largest red light district and one of Asia’s largest.

_ 15, 000 women operate from its narrow lanes and multi-level hovels.

_ The women are trafficked here from across India, Bangladesh and Nepal.