He spearheaded the first rights-based HIV intervention programmes in India by collectivising sex workers
A leader of the rights movement for sex workers in India and a public health expert known for his contribution to the prevention of HIV in the country, Smarajit Jana, passed away due to COVID-19 related complications in Kolkata on Saturday. An epidemiologist, he was also a member of the National Task Force on COVID-19. He was 68 years old.
Dr. Jana founded and spearheaded the first rights-based HIV intervention programmes in India by collectivising the sex workers of Sonagachi and setting up the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in Kolkata in 1995, making it a centre of HIV response. He was also a member of the National AIDS Control Organisation’s (NACO) steering committee.
A medical graduate and expert in social and preventive medicine, Jana was instrumental in setting up a cooperative bank for sex workers, so that their earnings could be secured. Whether sex workers should have a cooperative bank was a matter of debate in the West Bengal Assembly and some portions of the Act had to be changed in the mid-1990s to enable it.
He was a member of a Supreme Court-appointed panel in Budhadev Karmaskar vs State of West Bengal, which in its report in 2016 recommended legal recognition for sex workers through the issuing of ration and voter identification cards, and decriminalising of sex work under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. More recently, in 2020, based on a plea by the DMSC on the plight of sex workers during the nationwide lockdown, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre and State governments to provide free ration to sex workers.
Tributes pour in
“Saddened at the passing of Dr. Smarajit Jana. He founded the unique cooperative of sex workers who went on to have bank accounts & identity cards which entitled them to social welfare benefits. Champion of marginalized & stigmatised women. Condolences to his family & admirers,” tweeted West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
“Today we have lost one of our tallest public health leaders Dr. Smarajit Jana. If HIV incidence has come down in india, the credit to a large measure goes to him for he provided the basic public health ground rules to deal with that disease. May his soul rest in peace,” K. Sujatha Rao, former Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, posted on Twitter.
A dear friend of three decades and co-member of the National Task Force on COVID-19, Dr. Raman R. Gangkhedkar remembers Dr. Jana, “A man who was short physically, but his stature was very tall. He was a great visionary who believed in empowering sex workers, rather than others taking decisions on their behalf. He was advocating for a peer-based approach at a time policy makers would view sex workers with a lot of stigma.”
“He believed in community-participation, which was the hallmark of his approach in fighting HIV/AIDS,” said senior Supreme Court lawyer Anand Grover, whose work on health rights and HIV/AIDS brought the two close. “He is known for his work around condom promotion among sex workers, which was quite radical for its time as it involved empowering sex workers and giving them a voice so that they could negotiate with their clients. He has left a legacy that is difficult to emulate.”