Happy that business is on an all-time high, sex workers in Kolkata’s Sonagachi, Asia’s biggest hub, are now seeking new flats to relocate because the big, colonial buildings which once housed them are bursting at the seams. Every day, new sex workers move out in other neighbourhoods spread across Kolkata, confident that clients loaded with cash will follow them through a well-oiled machinery that includes WhatsApp groups and Facebook messenger updates. With changing times, the touts have upgraded their modus operandi, posting messages on Facebook pages that read Have & More, an indication of fresh arrivals. Others post messages with triggers like Coffee & After?
But that does not mean Sonagachi is empty. Every night, customers visiting the north Kolkata neighbourhood in backfiring cabs and belching buses are offered multiple options by touts who crowd the entrance to the dinghy bylanes behind a maze of street vendors.
Interestingly, Sonagachi has now acquired an exalted stature, there are even OYO and AirB&B rooms in Sonagachi, often considered a hub for filmmakers and photographers seeking the ideal script and the best shot of the lives and times of these hapless women.
There are no official figures for sex workers in Kolkata because prostitution is not a legal profession. Unofficial estimates—mostly compiled by non governmental organisations (NGOs)—peg the figure at a little over 9,000 in Sonagachi alone. Across Kolkata, there are a little over 300,000 sex workers, their work masked as private escorts, impresarios and spa workers. There’s no dearth of publicity, daily newspapers—the vernacular ones—devote full page advertisements for these services, all labelled under different, indicative categories. “It is an open and shut case in Kolkata that no one is ready to touch. Its business, its entertainment, its life,” says Nishi Kant, a senior official of Shakti Vahini, an NGO that empowers women trafficked for sex by returning them to their homes.
Women in Sonagachi, where hope and death live cheek by jowl, say the work gives them both cash and honour, though many are worried at high retrenchment because of continued influx of new women from the hinterland, also Bangladesh and Nepal. Once, women in Sonagachi remained in business for a little over 50 years, now fresh arrivals are pushing them out of job at 40 years.
Those who grow old start on their own, working on supplies directly from Bangladesh, the rest do menial jobs as caretakers at old age homes or guest houses meant for employed bachelors.
Sadhana, whose name translates into worship in Bengali, says except the standard of service, nothing has changed in Sonagachi. Once, clients would travel in hand-pulled rickshaws and offer monthly retainership to many, now it’s a one-time stand, payments done in advance.
There are Paytms, even credit card facilities registered with local grocery stores. In some places, visitors are allowed with a previous appointment made by email. However, the lowly ones stand in wraparound balconies on the second floor of the buildings. “We get 40% of the amount agreed, and tips if the client splurges,” says Sadhana, 40. Her career is almost over, she is on the lookout for jobs across India, ideally in Delhi where full-time maids earn from anywhere between Rs 12,000-18,000, unlike Kolkata where the rates are less than half. Sadhana keeps her daily collections tucked into a hidden shelf in her room. She says she has saved a little over Rs 300,000 in fixed deposits and another Rs 200,000 in savings accounts. She goes to the bank every month end. She says she is a school dropout not keen to discuss her past. Her husband sold her to a pimp in Sonagachi, her son does not know her profession. “My past will not help anyone, future is for me to shape.” Sadhana says her own experiences could fill a book, because she has not had an ordinary life.
Many in Sonagachi live through hard times when they first land up in Kolkata, sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes in space—often used for breaking coal—under expansive stairs of the buildings. Research shows nearly 70% of the women have nowhere to go after a lifetime spent working in the brothels.
“The society, of which these sex workers are a part, needs to take care of them. You cannot expect the government to look after retired sex workers,” says Nirmalya Bhattacharya, a retired banker who offers comfort to terminally ill patients in Kolkata.
He says increased demand for paid sex is pushing more into the business, an equally large number is retiring at an alarming rate. Bhattacharya cites examples of many cities across the world where prominent feminists have offered to help with private and public money to build homes where older prostitutes rescued from the streets could live with dignity. “Can that happen in India?” he wonders. Those who work with the sex workers say such help may not be forthcoming because prostitution is a very stigmatised occupation.
Some change is happening. In 2016, a sex worker’s son went to Old Trafford and trained with the Manchester United Junior team. It was called a rare change in Sonagachi.
MINI BENGALS IN KAMATHIPURA
“As long as demand for sex is there, nothing will change in India’s burgeoning sex trade,” says an exasperated Guddubhai, an NGO worker in Mumbai’s Kamathipura sex hub.
Guddubhai, who works closely with NGOs and cops to identify and save women forced into prostitution, offering them medical help and psychological treatment, says in Maharashtra alone there are a little over 900,000 sex workers. And the numbers are growing.
Thanks to steady arrivals from Bengal, Bangladesh and parts of Jharkhand, Kamathipura and other sex hubs in Mumbai and Maharashtra are turning into “Mini Bengals”, says Guddubhai.
The second and concluding part on sex workers finds two of India’s biggest sex hubs bursting at seams and business growing like never before.
He says it’s difficult to take on the sex mafia in India; the pimps have powerful backers ranging from politicians to senior cops, and powerful lawyers. “The underage girls can be made to return home but the rest stay back because they have a steady income. We help them take part in crafts and cooking workshops, watch news on television.” Interestingly, there is a rotating schedule for who gets the remote control.
Kamna, who has been staying in Kamathipura, says she is from Bengal and landed up in Mumbai after she was drugged. “I have been here for more than seven years. All are like me, we wanted love but were cheated, and now feel much loneliness.”
A next door neighbour, also a sex worker, says she was raped repeatedly when she was brought to Mumbai. But over the years, she and others sex workers in Kamathipura have grown to be strong survivors. That is what defines them. Sadly, violence and abuse, loss and damage continue to be the thread that binds all the stories in Kamathipura.
“I have countless lovers, but not one real love,” laughs the young woman. She would not give her name, only saying she tried to kill herself four times, the last time after a client paid her for a night’s sex and brought in five more clients for the same price.
Every day, new clients descend upon Kamathipura, thick walls of the buildings filtering the noise outside even as old memories converge in a haze for the women. At times, the women retreat, tired and hurt. And then, within minutes, they are back in the queue. “This is window casing of the body. I lose business if I am not seen. At times, I joke about my life so I can live, but my sadness has no end,” says Kamna.
She says once the city was alien to her, now she is familiar to Mumbai’s frenetic, overwhelming pace. On her weekly holiday, Kamna quietly watches from a distance life unfolding on the streets.
Isharat Begum, 65, who has been working to help improve lives of the sex workers of Sonagachi and Kamathipura, says the influx will continue till a huge, societal change is in place. “When I hear stories of these women, I cannot hold back tears. When I first came to Kamathipura, I was trying to prove something to myself, I was confident of changing many things in Kamathipura. Soon I realised the influx will never stop, in fact, it is on a high. Paid sex has grown to unimaginable levels in India.”
Begum says now she finds her idea to transform Kamathipura totally preposterous, almost ridiculous. Caked with makeup almost hurting the eye, the garish-looking women reminded Begum of a losing battle, probably lost already. “I give them some honour, that’s all I can do.” The freebies range from a visit to a movie hall or an amusement park, even some hours on the Girgaum Chowpatty beach.
And then, the routine turns horrible and horrible turns routine for Kamathipura’s women.
“Once I got over 386 girls rescued in a raid, and got the pimps arrested by the cops. The girls were in business in three days flat,” says Guddubhai.
A Human Rights Watch report states that there are an estimated 22 million sex workers in India and nearly 35% of them enter the profession at the age of 18 years. India’s Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (IPTA), which dates back to 1956, says a client may be punished if the sex worker is below the age of 18 but implementation is a serious problem. Sex work in India is largely unorganised and unmonitored, not explicitly banned, but brothels, pimping and soliciting are. Worse, there’s a difference between trafficking and sex work and IPTA, strangely, does not make sex work illegal.
There are other issues as well, especially relating to paid sex with children. Independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar has repeatedly highlighted how India’s lack of substantial data on child sexual abuse diluted the approach required to tackle increasing sexual crimes against children. Chandrasekhar has recommended the creation of a unique “sex-offender’s registry” in POSCO.
Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi has drafted a bill called Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection & Rehabilitation) Bill 2016 that aims to bring sweeping changes in the way trafficking can be controlled and prostitution banned.
But the bill, which has to pass through the rigours of Parliament, has already run into trouble.
Sex workers claim the bill has failed to consider a top court panel’s recommendation that they be included in the fight against the menace. Worse, another concern in the draft is that it has no provision for sex work done with consent or voluntary sex work. All acts listed as offences presuppose that doing sex work always entails trafficking and can never be voluntary.
“We have a problem. The bill almost equates trafficking with sex work. A Supreme Court panel report in 2011 recommended sex workers be made a stakeholder in the process of inclusion, but the bill keeps us out,” the All India Network of Sex Workers said in a statement last year. There are other issues. For example, the draft does not explain “place of sex work” despite the panel suggesting that a definition of “brothel” be included. Worse, the draft bill allows any law-enforcement official to raid at will without a warrant. The problem is far from over
Meanwhile, the crowds—every day and night—are swelling at Sonagachi, Kamathipura and other sex hubs across India.
There’s no dearth of anything—cash, clients and women.