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It is through an acquaintance that I meet Narender, the pointsman of one of Delhi's biggest pimps. He fixes an appointment for Friday, 8.30 pm, at a five-star restaurant. Rita, he says, is a "good girl from a respectable family and speaks English. She is a favourite with many of my clients". Even as we speak, Narender's mobile keeps ringing. It's one enquiry after another. "In this dhanda, one is always busy," he says. Before I leave I am told that I should be there on time. If there is any change of venue or time, I would be informed.
Rita is on the dot for the appointment, dressed in a white cotton top and black trousers. Heads turn because she is tall and has a figure which she does not hesitate to flaunt. Pleasantries over, she is a little bemused that I am meeting her only to pump her for info. But she gradually eases into talking about her profession. "Yes, it's a life which I have got used to. Good money and fun," she shrugs. Her clients are mostly businessmen and some of them are even "faithful". Rita has been in the business for two years now.
Doesn't she feel uncomfortable dealing with strangers? "Look, we operate through an established network which helps us carry out the business without hassles. There is no tension," she says. Rita claims a weekend of work gets her Rs 50,000. When she started out, there were not many girls from good families. "But now there are many. It has almost become respectable," she says, with a hint of sarcasm.
Among Delhi's high-flyers, party-hoppers and wannabe socialites, 'good sex for good money' is the new buzzphrase. Which is why the city is labelled by many, including police officials, as the new sex capital of India. Going by sheer numbers, Mumbai has more sex workers than Delhi. But when it comes to providing sex for the well-heeled and the powerful (read politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, fixers and middlemen), Delhi is the new hot spot. Call it the oldest profession, but here it's got an all-new five-star sheen. Police estimates put the annual turnover of the entire flesh trade in the capital at Rs 500 crore. Says Delhi's crime branch chief, Deependra Pathak, "The business is very clearly booming. When it comes to upmarket prostitution, Delhi is the new nerve-centre."
The five-star call girls don't fit the stereotype of the emaciated and exploited sex worker. Neither do the women wear loud clothes, garish make-up and solicit customers under murky street lamps. The girls are moderately educated, confident and sophisticated—answering to the description of coming from "good families"—and are comfortable with five-star plushness and farmhouse revelry. They drive cars and operate through cellphones. Points out a senior police official: "Some of the women we have come across during our recent raids were a shock to us. They spoke good English and were educated. They didn't fit the bill of the traditional sex worker we normally come across. They seemed to be from decent families. Some of them were even working women who were simply out to make some quick money."
Sonia, 32, is one such convert. She has profited enormously from the trade. Once a part of the fashion frat, her career took a nosedive and through 'contacts' she managed to hitch her fortunes to fat-cat clients. There has been no looking back. "Things were in a bad shape then. You get used to a lifestyle and then you can't suddenly give it all up," she says. She has now moved to a posh locality in the city, and has bought a car. "I know you might call me a cheap woman but what could I do? Now everyone is happy, even my folks. Of course, they don't exactly know what I do," she says. Her parents are away at Chandigarh and live a retired life. Sonia makes it a point to visit them once every three months."I make up for all that I am doing by taking them gifts," she says.
For many women things are not as simple. Leading a double life—playing the smart neighbourhood girl on weekdays and dashing off for weekend liaisons with strangers—has cracked many. Says Sonia: "It is alright if you are on your own. But if you live with your family it becomes difficult. Some girls I know actually come from conservative homes and have to cook up excuses every time they have to spend a night out."
Girls from middle-class families are in it initially for the "kicks" and "quick money". Most of them are starry-eyed and wish to be part of the glam set: models, movie and TV stars. To kickstart such a career requires money. An easy way to get it is by making a few extra bucks on weekends. While some opt out after one or two dates, others get hooked. As Rita puts it, "Since the money is good we can have a cool time—weekends in Goa or even travel abroad. The girls know there is a price to be paid. But we don't care."
Some girls even operate independent of the pimp but they run the risk of picking up the wrong sort of client. However, the police say women are far better off minus the pimps. "If you see the trend in Delhi, it's a liberation of sorts for call girls. Increasingly, sophisticated call girls avoid using pimps and that makes transactions more clean," says Pathak.
The trade has grown in Delhi because, as the capital, it is here that major deals are brokered. And politicians and bureaucrats need to be entertained. Also, there is a lot of money floating around. Clients, ranging from the retail shopkeeper in Connaught Place to restaurant owners in Rohini and real estate developers in Gurgaon, are all willing to splurge. To service them, a number of guest houses have come up which double up as brothels. In south Delhi, the trade is run from respectable residential colonies. And farmhouses hired for sexual orgies have been the targets of police raids.
In one such swoop last month, three women and five pimps were arrested from a farmhouse in Vasant Kunj, in southwest Delhi. One of the women, an economics graduate from Bangalore, used to spend about 15 days a month in the capital and earned up to Rs 1.5 lakh in that time. All the three women, aged 18-21, charged anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 a night and their clients were businessmen and lawyers.
Outlook's investigations show that upmarket prostitution thrives in the capital—the 15 raids undertaken by the police last month are an index.Take Queen Bee (QB to the trade). She operates out of Greater Kailash, an upscale residential area. QB is one of the biggest suppliers of girls with a wide network. She not only provides "good" Indian girls but also keeps Moroccan women in her house. Arrested in a raid in the early '90s at a five-star hotel, QB's network today has the backing of both influential politicians and businessmen.
Says a cop: "It will take a lot to bust her, given her links." According to those who have dealt with QB, who works strictly on references, she rakes in close to Rs 3 lakh a day. The asking rate for any of the girls, say clients, is in the range of Rs 30,000-35,000 for a night.
Also operating in Delhi is an out-of-work Bollywood actress linked to a Pakistani gentleman. Under her wing are seven to eight TV starlets. With their acting careers having taken a dip, many have turned to the trade. According to pimps, the demand for big-name sexual partners is high among bureaucrats and politicians.
One woman picked up by the police in a recent raid is Nivedita, a 25-year-old junior executive of a Delhi-based firm. She was first noticed at a lounge bar in Gurgaon by a pimp. Impressed by her looks and personality, he broke her into the profession.But she is selective about her clients. "If I don't like the guy I call it off," she says. Weekend outings fetch Nivedita anywhere between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000. Besides, clients often shower her with expensive gifts.
The number of Niveditas in the capital is growing by the day. At the high end, the call-girl racket in Delhi involves teenagers, out-of-work models, glam girls and foreigners who hustle blatantly. "The large number of upmarket girls to choose from is incredible. For the right price and with the right references, you can get whatever you want," says Rohit Uberoi, one of the capital's well-known pimps.
The arrest of Rohini, 29, and an 18-year-old girl last month from a five-star hotel was revealing. The two ran a racket that serviced the rich and the powerful. Rohini drove a Skoda and had a snooty south Delhi address. Her 18-year-old partner was educated in one of the city's respectable schools. Says assistant commissioner of police, Dr Joy Tirkey, credited with busting their operation: "The two maintained an exclusive portfolio of customers, operated through mobile phones and came from good families". Investigations further revealed that Rohini charged about Rs 25,000 a night. She confessed to the police that she was running the business to support her lavish lifestyle.
So how does the business operate? According to DCP Dinesh Bhatt, "It is all very well- organised with pimps and a support system." Typically, scouts are sent out to places frequented by the young. The proliferation of pubs and lounge bars in the city and its outskirts has helped. It is here that new recruits are identified. "Hit the right place and the right crowd and you will find that there are women who don't mind making money and having fun," says Rajat Prasad, who recruits women for the trade.
Once on the pimp's list of girls, business is transacted over mobile phones. The rendezvous is normally at a five-star, a guest house owned by the client or even his residence. According to the police, most of the pimps entertain calls from only those who have been referred to by a client. This keeps the transaction private and restricted to a select circle.
But not all of the trade is as secretive. A case in point is Satbir Singh alias 'professor'. He had nine foreigners, mostly from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, operating out a three-star hotel in the commercial hub, Karol Bagh. Singh is still absconding and enjoys the patronage of a heavyweight Haryana politician. Police suspect that since he owns three other hotels in the area, his take from the trade would be in the vicinity of Rs 10-15 lakh a day.
To the five-star call girls add the growing number of massage parlours, escort and dating services. All these are nothing but euphemisms for sex-shops. City newspapers are full of classifieds advertising their services. A few weeks ago 'parlour don' Sushil Kumar was arrested. An engineering graduate and an IAS aspirant, Sushil decided to get into the flesh trade along with three friends. Within a year they opened nine parlours in the city.
Also on the police watch list is the infamous Kanwaljeet, who once had the dubious sobriquet of being the king of the city's prostitution racket. He moved out to Mumbai when the heat was turned on him. But even now his writ runs through his two former wives, say the police. His underlings, Menon and Vimal, have since branched out on their own.
The police admit that cracking down on prostitution rings is often a futile exercise since these resurface in no time. As it is a bailable offence, women nabbed are let off by the courts and are back in business. Says Bhatt, "It's a social evil and raids are no solution. Legalising the trade may have a far better effect."
But politicians would not want to give the legal stamp to the world's oldest profession. So the trade flourishes, as a reluctant police force goes through the motions of raids and arrests.