“Ab to dus rupaye wala customer bhi chalega, kam se kam chai aur pav to khane ko milenge is lockdown mein (Now, even a customer who can pay ten rupees will do. It can get me some chai and bread at least during this lockdown),” says Beauty Biswas, a sex worker at Kamathipura, Mumbai’s notorious red light district, located virtually at the centre of the city.
The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected the sustenance of these women in Kamathipura. The area is home to about 4500 -5000 sex workers, who have been rendered jobless and penniless since the lockdown was clamped. Forever neglected by the state government and unable to claim any of the relief measures meant for daily wage and other poor and migrant workers, these women are desperate, and ready to once again ply their trade despite the risks of contagion from the virus.
Kamathipura is not a containment zone. The only support these women have received are from some non-profit organisations who have provided food packages, masks and sanitisers. Earning meagre amounts as it is in pre-COVID times, they have survived the three month lockdown on borrowings, which has left them drowning in debt.
Beauty, a sex worker who hails from Nadia district in West Bengal, has three daughters and a son who live in their native village and are not aware of their mother’s trade, believing she works in a company. In her late 40s, she helps out her elderly in-laws too, who occasionally take up odd-jobs in their village back home.
“My son fled home, seeing the poverty in the family,” says Beauty. “I entered this fles -trade at Kamathipura to ensure the survival of my six-member family. Now, at least, they don’t look into each other’s plates while having food.”
Since the lockdown began, however, Beauty has not earned a single rupee and has been able to send nothing to her family in West Bengal. She got a loan from a Gharwali (the local madam) and faced physical abuse by her dalal (pimp). Today, Beauty is mentally traumatised, but still waits in a foul smelling corridor for customers.
Meena Menon is just another one of hundreds who have similar stories to tell.
A HIV-infected sex worker from Bihar’s Katihar district, Meena has lived and worked in Kamathipura for the past 10 years. Meena’s only son, now in his 20s, has settled in Mumbai but has severed all ties with his mother. All that she knows about him is that he is married. Meena’s struggle for food and shelter during the lockdown is heartrending, though not uncommon in these lanes.
“I reached here with my Aadhar card at the counter where food was being distributed,” said Meena. “They took my Aadhar number but did not give me anything. The Gharwali threw me out and I walked in the next lane for shelter. I was again thrown out, after that I started sleeping on the roads near the brothel.’
“Some nights I had only sugar and water; from where will I get medicines in this lockdown?” she asks. “Mere ko to sirf dhandha samajhta hain (I only understand my dhandha ). That also has become impossible as it is said that the virus spreads due to physical contact. Main to waise bhi mar jaaungi aise me; yaha khana nahi aur dawai ka kya karungi (I will die from hunger there is no food and from where will I get medicine). Jisko marna hain mare, Sarkar ko kya farak padtaa hain (Let anyone die what difference does it make to the government).”
A sex worker in Kamathipura on an average charges Rs.150-180 per customer. From this, she has to pay rent for an hour for the bed, use of the bathroom and even make-up given by the Gharwali. Sex-workers like Meena and Beauty hardly save Rs 30-50 from one customer. There are also "cot-wali" sex workers, those who don’t have any place to take the customer to and just rent a cot for Rs 10-30 per hour. They sleep on the streets or in the verandas of the brothels.
Squalid and sleazy
Kamathipura is divided roughly into 14 lanes, its sex workers hailing from all over the country and even from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal. Earlier known as Lal Bazaar, it carries a legacy from the British times for its nightlife, sleaze joints and brothels.
The lanes and bylanes are crowded with people most of the day. Women and girls were once trafficked into Kamathipura from Europe and Japan to serve British soldiers. Kamathipura continued to flourish even after independence, as the Mumbai underworld took control of the area and its working women.
The sex workers, some of whom got into drug peddling and supari (contract killing) work were used by both the underworld and police. The brothels and Gharwalis, as the women who ran them were called, were protected by underworld dons.
Gangubai Kothewali, once a sex worker herself in the lanes of Kamathipura, later turned Gharwali supposedly with high-profile connections in the police, underworld, business and politics. If at all any glamour was attached to Kamathipura at one time, it is all gone now. What remains is just a squalid, poverty stricken, and often cruel, red light area. The poverty has worsened even more due to the lockdown.
Take a walk through its lanes even today and one will see women of all ages, with heavy make-up and bright coloured clothes displaying plenty of skin, crowding the slightly ajar doors of dingy and dirty looking houses. Crumpled dupattas and sarees are strewn on the floor. A tiny bunk bed in a 5 ft x 3 ft room, with no windows and a dirty smell of attar, is their work place.
Kamathipura falls in the constituency of Congress MLA Amin Patel, who did arrange food packets for the sex workers. “They are invisible groups of society,” said Patel, “Amid the lockdown, it was not easy for NGOs to reach out to them and strict police patrolling has closed down the sex-trade leaving them with no source of livelihood.”
Amin Patel confirmed that some parts of his constituency, including Kamathipura, were initially in the red zone. However, towards end May, Kamathipura was declared a green zone. And since testing is done only on symptomatic people and their primary contacts, no tests have been done among the sex workers.
NGOs step in
Prerana, an NGO working with sex workers especially in Kamathipura and Falkland Road say that they were able to arrange foodgrains for the women. “But they do not have fuel to cook the same,” said Priti Patkar, founder and Director of Prerana. “They could not go anywhere as strict lockdown was clamped in Kamathipura and Falkland Road. This has caused a host of problems for them. It was also difficult to provide nutritional diet amid lockdown for the sex workers, many of whom are infected with AIDS or HIV positive”.
Apart from the essential commodities, sex workers also need medical support. Some of these sex workers live in poor health conditions and are affected by HIV/AIDS, and other diseases caused by unsafe sex in unhygienic conditions. “As per the NACO directives, the nodal agencies are required to reach medicines and anti-retroviral (ART) drugs to them,” said Tejaswi Sevekari, Director Saheli Sangh, an NGO working in the red light areas, where it conducts sensitisation programmes and activities for sex workers and their children.
MDACS is the nodal agency tasked to provide multi-sectorial health support to Female Sex Workers (FSW), Men having Sex with Men (MSM), Transgender, Injection Drug Users (IDUs) and even migrant labourers.
“The Mumbai Districts Aids Control Society (MDACS) could not reach out to sex workers in this pandemic crisis,” said its director Dr Padmaja Keskar. “They are part of our targeted interventions, which offer a comprehensive package of prevention and care, support and treatment services to high risk populations like these Female Sex Workers (FSW). But the priority now has been treating COVID patients, so nothing was done by MDACS.”
In no man’s land
Beauty and Meena had both called their native places to enquire if any money had been transferred to their bank accounts under the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), under which Rs.500 was to be paid to every one with a PMJDY account. But as sex workers are not legally classified as workers under any law or act, people like Beauty and Meena could not avail this benefit.
“For sex workers, there is no budget allocated or any specific schemes by the government,” said Maharashtra minister of state for Women and Child Development Yashomati Chandrakant Thakur of the Congress. “I understand they need help, but it can be routed via NGOs only.”
“It is really sad that there is no scheme or programme for the sex workers,” added Rajkumar Badole of BJP and former Minister of Social Justice. “The ruling coalition-government of Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) can include them in some scheme keeping in mind the pandemic crisis.” Social Justice Minister Dhananjay Munde remained unreachable despite phone calls and messages.
The tragedy is that sex workers are caught in a strange legal no man’s land. While the law says brothels are illegal, the livelihood from it is very much legal income.
“Brothels are illegal and I provide them a place to do flesh-trade in South Mumbai with the cheapest rent, along with protection from police,” said Gharwali Sitara Bai who owns three-brothels with 70 sex workers under her, and pays rent of 45,000 to 60,000 for each. An amount she collects as a percentage of the sex workers’ earnings.
“I also pay hefty hafta (protection money) to police so that these sex workers can do business at ease. All this does not come free and these women are Randis (whores) and meant for this life,” she says clinically.
A non-profit organization (NGO) Apne Aap Women’s Collective (ASWC) addresses the plight of women trafficking in Kamathipura and Falkland Road. “These women come from extremely poor backgrounds and get trapped in the web of the Gharwali and Dalal (pimp),” said Manju Vyas, the Chief Executive Officer of ASWC. “They are not aware of their legal rights. The extreme conditions force some of them into suicide. The conditions at present are so bad that despite receiving food kits, they could not cook for themselves and their children as they had no money for fuel. The food packets also did not reach all of them.”
Could legalising sex work be the solution?
“It is disappointing to learn about the condition of these sex workers in Kamathipura, however if this is de-criminalised, the already alarming levels of trafficking of minor girls will shoot up further,” said High Court advocate Farhana Shah. “Sex-workers (above 18 yrs) if caught with customers are neither fined nor jailed. The brothel owners are charged under the various IPC sections. It is also to be considered that these women do not want to change their lifestyle, thus they tend to remain in the same business despite all their problems.”
“The decriminalisation of sex-trade is not possible as numbers will speed of immoral trafficking,” added Manju Vyas. “The government needs to address their issues as they are an integral part of the system. The money they make is for their livelihood.”
The law as it stands says that a sex worker, if found soliciting customers on the roads, can be booked under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act (PITA). Brothels are illegal, and the Social Service Branch of Mumbai Police arrests brothel owners and pimps for sex-trade under PITA. The customer is also fined and the girls rescued are mostly sent to shelter homes or let off by the police with a warning.
The women are now desperate to get back to work despite the risks due to COVID-19 purely to end the vicious cycle of hunger, violence and fear of being thrown out from the brothels. “It is a challenge for the women to fend for themselves and take care of their children,” said Tejaswi, director of Saheli Sangha.
“With little resources in hand, the current situation has forced them and their children into extremely vulnerable situations,” added Tejaswi. “The children of sex workers are also suffering. As the care homes, hostels and residential schools have been closed these children are deprived of the free meals they were entitled to from these institutions. These children too need to be taken care of now.”
( Names of sex workers changed on request)
All photographs by the author