If brothels in India’s urban spaces have thrived primarily on human trafficking, then the country has a triangle that maps out the sly movement of human cargo. Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta chart a dangerous interlink that keeps the supply of women never short of demand. It is, however, not just anybody’s libido that cranks up the flesh trade across the clearly defined pockets of prostitution in these three metros. It is the avarice of the authorities.
The very forces that are supposed to routinely fight this modern-day slavery often collude with kidnappers, middlemen and brothel-keepers to earn benefits much beyond sexual gratification. Clusters of brothels in these top cities are sources of huge income for the corrupt: cops, politicos and civic authorities. In this well-oiled system, the sex workers’ misery matters least for the higher-ups, her agony seldom translating into administrative empathy.
Take the case of the national capital. Delhi’s red-light area, GB Road, flourishes less than a kilometre from the Chandni Chowk police station. “It cannot function without the active connivance of police, politicians and the local administration,” says Swati Maliwal (see interview), chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW). The 1994-founded statutory body estimates that GB Road has around 90 brothels housing approximately 5,000 women and 800 children.
Video by Jitender Gupta; Edited by Suraj Wadhwa
Prostitution, per se, is no offence in India. What is illegal is the business surrounding the ‘oldest profession’. Owning or managing a facility that entertains paid sex goes against the law of the land. Equally criminal are activities such as soliciting and pimping, not to speak of engaging children in flesh trade. Their enforcement, though, has always been mired in complications, essentially due to a piquancy: the stress is not on prevention of prostitution, but on checking trafficking. The nation has come a long way since 1956 when Parliament ratified the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act—or ITPA—that seeks to check sexual exploitation, but the plight of the females in the red-light areas remains status quo.
The focus of the law over the six decades has been to treat the woman as the victim and to penalise the criminal chain: the pimp, agent, brothel owner and the family members. A strong wall of administrative connivance works against the prospect of punishment, trapping the woman in a virtual cage where men take turns after paying money that reaches her only in trickles. It’s a trench that deepens the more she tries to escape.
Much of the supply actually comes from Assam and West Bengal. And many of these young women end up in Maharashtra and the national capital. The worst offenders in trafficking cases, too, remain the two eastern states. But those on the ground say Delhi is growing as a hub for trafficking. “It is becoming a nodal point. Girls pass through Delhi to reach Haryana and Rajasthan,” says Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, a human-rights NGO.
A sex worker inside an attic-like room she stays
Women charge Rs 350 per session with a client, but this amount goes to the brothel-keeper. The sex worker is given just the basic minimum needed for survival, and to ensure she doesn’t escape. This puts GB Road’s economy at approximately Rs 100 crore a month. Many of the women had been trafficked when they were younger, and the police continue to find new victims of sex-trafficking. All of these function in plain sight of the law. Only a few lucky ones are rescued.
The Ever-elusive Brothel-owner: From its looks, dusty GB Road is like another stretch of the Walled City—until one looks up at the buildings. Above the shops live people, their windows and balconies are all grilled. Gaggles of women stand pressed up against those metal crisscrosses. With bright-red lipstick and their hands stretched out, they make eye contact with the pedestrian, smile and wave at him.
Given the failure of law-enforcement agencies, intelligence and the police, the DCW has decided to tackle things from the root. What the DCW’s Maliwal is relying on are sections 3, 7 and 18 of the ITPA. These prescribe punishments—from 3 months to 5 years, and fines from Rs 200 to Rs 2,000—for keeping a brothel. The targets are the owner, landlord, tenant, lessee, occupier, agent or person in charge. Section 18 empowers the magistrate to close a brothel and evict offenders. For this, the magistrate will have to issue a notice to the brothel-owner, lessor or landlord.
That makes it possible for the Delhi government to move towards demolishing or shutting down brothels, and going ahead with prosecuting owners and potential traffickers. It is at this point the DCW’s civic exercise invariably encounters an obstacle: none can answer who owns the brothels of GB Road.
So, late last December, Maliwal organised a field trip, inviting representatives from all relevant bodies: the police, district magistrate, the water board, power discom, public works department, fire department and NGOs. The objective was to enter the brothels and show the officials what ‘thahkhanas’ looked like, to push them to begin with at least demolishing those tiny cells wherein women are often packed during a police raid. They are also illegal structures, a fire and health hazard. They are ingeniously built and can be anywhere—the women can be hiding above one’s head in a false ceiling, or under one’s feet in a false floor. Passageways will open from clothing cabinets or cupboards. Spaces that look like storage lofts, not much bigger than a coffin, will have a woman sometimes lying in it, dead straight.
But the authorities are reluctant to move on this. Though demolishing the brothels is a far way away, the officials have failed to take even the first step, which is to identify the owners. A large troop of these officials walked from the GB Road police station, to the red-light area. They went up and down the buildings, climbed up ladders leading to lofts and scrambled and crawled in and out of cubicles, where the women met their clients or slept. For many of these officials, it was the first time they had ever visited this part of town. The engineers with the municipal corporation (MCD) said they had never been inside any of these buildings. They typically do yearly assessment of building safety from the outside, completely unaware of the rickety and fire-prone nature of the buildings’ interiors.
The exercise came to this because four meetings in 2015 (between May and November) to do the same job yielded little progress. The DCW kept repeatedly calling upon all these administrative bodies to dig out their files and zero in on the property and ownership documents of the various buildings on GB Road.
The commission asked water-supplying Jal Board and electricity-distributing BSES to identify the names in which they were billing connections on GB Road. “The bills were a mess,” says Maliwal. “They listed simply names like ‘Raju’. How can you ever locate the person?” Jal Board identified 66 active connections. They even found outstanding bill payments of Rs 1 lakh. But the board errs on the side of not having a KYC process, so they claim they don’t really know the owners.
BSES identified 103 electricity connections. Last June, they said they couldn’t trace the other bills as they are in a storeroom that needed to be “vacuumed”. They still haven’t done that task, a BSES official confirms. By November, the BSES somehow identified 56 of these connections. The various bodies have been fobbing off the responsibility, claiming that the documents are with other agencies. Expectedly, they are falling back on clichéd suggestions: more CCTV cameras, streetlights and public announcements.
Failing Rehab: Between the choices of razing these structures and rehabilitating these women on GB Road, Vinita (name changed) who is a sex worker, seems divided on the issue. At brothel number 64, she waits for all the members of the inspection team to leave, especially the men. The lady then drops her dupatta which she was using to cover her face and says, “Maybe demolition will mean prostitution cannot take place here. But where will we all go? What else can we all do?”
The authorities are quick to pass the buck. DCP North, Mandeep Singh Randhawa, says the civic administration has a role to play. “The MCD, the revenue department…they are the ones who should know the ownership,” he insists. “If they don’t know who they are providing civic amenities to, why can’t they cut those connections? If they say the documents are forged or not in order, why have they never filed a case of forgery with us?”
Sharafat Ali, an assistant engineer with Delhi’s municipal corporation, is moved by the conditions of the brothels. But just like Vinita, he is also in two minds. Ali crawls out from a thahkhana, wiping the sweat from his brow. “This is not a simple issue. The MCD can clear these structures. But it is more than just demolishing because the corporation does not have the power to give any assistance to them if they lose their livelihoods,” he points out. “This kind of assistance has to come from the chief minister or at the level of the lieutenant governor.”
Shakti Vahini’s Kant agrees the thahkhanas inside the brothels are dangerous. “Of course, I support the effort to find the owners,” he says. “But I will be the first person to oppose the demolition if there is no safety net for the women. We cannot have hundreds of women out on the street. Pulling down the brothels is no solution.”
A landmark 2011 Supreme Court judgement made it clear that rehabilitation of women engaged in sex work is essential. Calling upon Article 21, on the right to live with dignity, the order in Budhadev Karmaskar vs State Of West Bengal asked the central and state governments to prepare schemes with detailed mention about technical/vocational training and employment offers.
Over the five years since, the national capital has failed to roll out a rehabilitation scheme for women. It has not even written a draft to this effect. There is no infrastructure for their rescue either. A state-level committee tasked with this has met only twice, and taken no action, despite Maliwal’s repeated requests for these meetings.
Delhi may not have a major problem in this area at all. Unlike West Bengal and Assam that record cases of trafficking in the thousands, the national capital’s figures have remained strangely low: only 27 cases were reported in 2014. But the numbers shot up to 87 in 2015. Delhi has no recorded cases of child trafficking since 2012. However, the DCW itself rescued three minors and four women from GB Road in 2015.
There is some hope on the anvil, in terms of a pending new legislation on trafficking. Draft versions of the bill, which Outlook has seen, is titled ‘Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation)’. Union minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, has promised that this will be a “comprehensive legislation”.
Sex workers outside brothel, soliciting men in Mumbai’s red-light area
Sonagachi & Kamathipura: West Bengal’s capital has a pocket bustling with prostitution and allied businesses, making it south Asia’s biggest red-light area. Sonagachi in north Calcutta is peopled with no less than 12,000 sex-workers, presenting the typical picture of women, young and old, lining up on both sides of grimy lanes cluttered with three-storey quarters and small paan shops, next to which men chat even as vehicles pass by.
That locality, not far from the elegant 19th-century Marble Palace, is plagued by the same paradox: how red-light areas continue to thrive right under the noses of the police and administration despite law in India prohibiting brothels and pandering. Perhaps Putul Haldar can give it an explanation through a collective that the young sex worker is a part of—to protect herself and the peers. “No one dares evict us because every single one of them comes here—from police to politician to don,” thunders the 36-year-old from northern Murshidabad district.
An NGO called Durbar has taken up the cause of sex workers like Putul, demanding legalisation of prostitution. “Sex work offers hundreds and thousands of women from poverty-stricken families opportunities for income,” says S. Jana, who heads the 1992-founded Durbar. According to him, a majority of sex workers in Sonagachi has chosen the profession voluntarily. “See, 99 per cent of them practise sex work on their own volition, whatever the reason behind it.”
A constant swell in the number of sex workers in Sonagachi contrasts with the present scene in another prominent of India’s red-light areas—almost diagonally opposite Calcutta on the country’s map. Mumbai’s Kamathipura, with 14 lanes, is of late witnessing a slide in its number of sex workers.
Social activists notice that the networks in the country’s commercial capital have also shifted to other cities and the trafficking ring is interconnected. “Instead of coming directly to Mumbai, the girls might be first sent to places like Meerut, Agra and Allahabad,” says Ashok Rajgor, of NGO Rescue Foundation that conducts rescue operations. “Also, earlier red-light areas and brothels were identifiable; now private prostitution involving mobile phones, houses, hotels, etc has gone up. The pimps or handlers are tough to be noticed and tracking has become difficult.”
The routine cut: The National Crime Record Bureau figures released last year showed an increase in human trafficking, especially minor girls. The number of rescue operations and raids has also increased. The number of brothels in Kamathipura and Falkland Road has come down. However, activists and police say the job of cracking down on networks has become harder because of the technology, shifts in hubs and networks.
A rescued sex worker at her residence in native West Bengal
Pravin Patil, Mumbai DCP (Enforcement), agrees, having been involved in rescue operations near Falkland Road and Kamathipura. “Unless we have specific information, it’s impossible to carry out raids. Nowadays a lot of information is passed online,” he points out. “The networks shift their base very frequently.”
A multi-pronged approach is needed to put an end to trafficking, according to Susieben Shah, former head of the State Women’s Commission in Maharashtra. “Along with a vigilant police, government policy, involvement of administration, there should be simultaneous focus on rehabilitation, livelihood in her hometown, counselling after rescue and so on. It won’t work in isolation,” she says. Outlook got no reply from the current office-bearers of the commission.
“The law to close down a brothel has existed from 1956, but it never happened for the next 50 years,” says social scientist-writer Pravin Patkar, who has been working on trafficking. “There is no willingness to strengthen the enforcement agencies. In trafficking, unlike with other organised crimes, a temporary agent can be anyone: an uncle, neighbour or boyfriend. Also, there is little legal basis for vigilance at borders because the crime gets completed here. Punitive action can be taken only where the money is exchanged.”
A petition by Patkar’s NGO Prerana in the high court led to empowerment of a magistrate to seal a brothel. “Even if ownership is disputed, it can always be sealed and taken in government possession, right? Why doesn’t that happen? No political will!” says the activist.
The sex workers in Kamathipura share an anecdote about an honest and strict cop who was in charge of the area a few years ago. “When he used to walk around with his baton, there was absolute silence on the road. Not one girl or pimp was on the road during his time,” says Salma. So, did the “business” stop? “No no, things became normal after he left,” says Anita, her best friend. Soon the stories move on to how much “fine” is paid after a raid and how much time is taken before they are back in business. It ranges from Rs 500 to Rs 1,500 and a few hours at the police chowk.
Putul, A Sex Toy?: In Calcutta, NGO Durbar has been at the forefront of resistance against demolitions of public brothel and other administrative measures such as evacuation of tenants and owners from premises in the red-light districts. The administration feels powerless. “Movements such as these are why we are unable to do away with red-light areas,” says an official of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
Indeed the topic has come up for review, as currently a countrywide battle rages between two opposing views. A section of rights workers and NGOs (including Durbar) fight for legalisation of prostitution, while the other demands stern measures to curb a profession “rooted in violent crimes against women”. Shakti Vahini, which has rescued hundreds of trafficked women and children from various parts of the country and helped the police crack down on trafficking gangs and put perpetrators behind bars, has filed PILs in the Supreme Court for a ban on the sex trade. “We want it eradicated completely,” avers Kant. “Only then will our girls and women be saved from heinous and brutal crimes committed against them.”
Outlook’s investigation and interactions with sex workers found that it is this side of the argument—that sex work is not a preferred profession, but one which has been forced on her, most often brutally—carries more weight. Even those like Putul admit that poverty led them to prostitution. “I don’t think I would have chosen it if my circumstances were not so adverse,” she say. The story of Kohinoor Begum, another sex worker from Sonagachi and a member of Durbar, isn’t all that different. “I was kidnapped by a classmate of mine when I was studying in class 8. He brought me here and sold me. I was tied up and raped. It was not the work I would have chosen. I was a good student and loved history.”
Durbar’s Jana says sex work has a direct correlation with crimes such as domestic violence and rape, pointing out that Durbar’s studies among groups of men who visit brothels reveal that the alternative has stopped them from “taking out their frustrations elsewhere”. Putul has stories to substantiate the claim.
Back in Delhi’s GB Road, the sun has set on Delhi’s wintry skyline and the women are getting ready to step out. Thick mist descends and pulls a sudden veil on their cluttered row of quarters.
By Anoo Bhuyan in Delhi, Prachi Pringlay-Plumber in Mumbai and Dola Mitra in Calcutta