Representational Image. Credit- Reuters

“Everyone knows that there are bar dancers in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore but no one cares. Government is concerned about street vendors, auto drivers, labourers. We are also like them, our families and children depend on us. How do we survive”, said Mini (name changed) a woman from Rajnat community of Rajasthan.

India’s strict lockdown measures to fight covid19 has resulted in loss of livelihood of crores of people. By now we are aware of plight of manual labourers but emotional and sexual laborers are not much talked. Clandestine population of Bar Dancers are hesitant to come forward for help due to the stigma attached to their work. Majority of the bar dancers belong to Nomadic and Denotified communities like Rajnat, Bedia, and Kanjar from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.  Among these communities unmarried women support family through sex work and bar dance while married women are housewives.

Maharashtra government ordered closing down of dance bars on 17th of March, seven days before nationwide lockdown. People working in dance bars are paid at the end of each day’s work so their earning stopped even before others. Bar Dancers somehow managed to survive for a month with their little savings. As the lockdown extended so did their anxiety for survival and loss of livelihood.

Now imagine coming out as a bar dancer in a society where ruling party supporters trends twitter with #Bar_Dancer and #BarBala to attack President of opposition party. The character assassination of a powerful politician by reminding of her past (if it was) occupation as bar dancer shows our perception and misogynistic attitude towards the bar dancers. All this contributes to the hesitation of bar dancers with multiple levels of vulnerabilities to seek help.

House in Rajnat community in a village in Ajmer,Rajasthan. Photo by- Vikram Rajnat

Bar Dancers stay in rented apartments with their children and other girls of their family who are in same occupation. Their family members from village visit them many times. They are charged higher rents than others in the same building because of their work. Now they are unable to pay rent and electricity bill. No money is left for ration and medicine. Organizations working in red light areas or with some of the bar dancers associations are helping with ration. But they do not have any connection as such and going back to villages is the only option left.

They have sold jewelries and mobile phone to pay the rent and book private vehicle for their villages. Due to the travel restrictions on elderlies, their mothers are not getting e-pass. Kiran (name changed) said, “We don’t have any money left. We are not getting any help from anyone. How does government expect us to survive in city like Mumbai”.  They have to bribe to the officials for pregnant and elderly women to travel back to their villages. Medical examination is done immediately on their arrival in the village. They have to face indecent comments and strange gaze of the people from other communities of their area.

According to the youth of Rajnat community who are coordinating the return of girls from Mumbai around 10,000 bar dancers are coming back to their villages in Rajasthan. They are coming empty handed with no certainty of getting back their jobs anytime soon. Anil Rajnat said, “Girls of our community were Aatmanirbhar working hard and looking after their family but the lockdown suddenly took away their means of survival. Government is providing us rice and wheat which is not enough. We need money to buy vegetables, milk, medicine etc”.

Girls working in Mumbai come to village once in a year so they do not have Jan Dhan account where they can get 500 rupees as promised by government is a concern raised by Vikram, a social activist from the community. He added that government focus more on sex workers of red light areas while there are thousands working independently who are not counted.

A study conducted by National Alliance Group of Denotified Tribes has stated that loss of livelihood by entertainer communities will lead to indebtness and increase in trafficking. Maximum qualification of Rajnat women is 8th pass and they never really took up any other skills. So the chances of trafficking and bonded labour increases due to increase in loan from informal sources. Civil society organizations working with the entertainer communities can use this as an opportunity to provide some alternative livelihood which can help them get a dignified life. However girls who are already engaged in bar dance or sex work will not be accepted in the community for marriage. So the community should be convinced to not compel their future generations into flesh trade.

Bar employees belong to the same economic status as manual labourers, street vendors, and auto drivers. But we do not find any mention of them anywhere in media or government for relief measures. Dance bar generates good amount of revenue and employs lakhs of people. They get all sorts of customers including high profile people but nobody is concerned about their issues in this pandemic. State governments should contact the bars directly and provide relief measures to all its employees. Women of Nomadic and Denotified communities are doubly marginalized due to their caste and gender. Recommendations of Renke (2008) and Idate (20018) commission should be implemented urgently to stop the further marginalization of nomadic and denotified communities.

Aditi Mishra, Senior Research fellow at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. My research is with Nomadic and Denotified Communities of Uttar Pradesh. I have completed my M.Phil. in Social Work from TISS, Mumbai on Urban Commons in Varanasi City.


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