When the “Red light” turned “Black”
A glimpse into the red light areas post demonetisation…
While November 8 shook the nation with a bold and unprepared step by the Government of India, there was one section of people that wasn’t much in news – the commercial sex worker. It is an open secret that in spite of prostitution being criminalised in India, prostitutes can be found in most of the cities across the nation functioning often with the knowledge of the authorities; be it Sonagachi in Kolkata, Kamathipura in Mumbai, Itwari in Nagpur, Budhwar Peth in Pune or Meergunj in Allahabad.
How would the commercial sex workers, often being victims of human trafficking, rape and other heinous crimes provide for themselves with customers paying them in old notes of 500 and 1000? It is common sense to deduce that the only people who got richer with demonetisation were the pimps because most of the illiterate and helpless commercial sex workers wouldn’t have bank accounts and the handful who would have wouldn’t have learnt how to operate them. Should we assume that each brothel in a red light area had fifty to hundred clients a day, it is easy maths to know the amount of black money that was hoarded in these areas every single day!
Some pimps say that their business decreased and some say that it increased as they were accepting old notes. Anti-trafficking activist Tinku Khanna says, “It is the common experience of anti-trafficking activists all over the world that at times of crisis – be it an economic recession, natural disasters, or ethnic conflicts – trafficking increases.” But a commercial sex worker in New Delhi told a newspaper, “We have to manage the daily earnings. We have to manage with only two to three customers who come every day. We are facing problems but we have to manage somehow with these earnings only.” It was reported in a handful of news publications that there was no work for the prostitutes – they couldn’t even earn a decent living in a society that had no alternative job for them. And, there is no one even today to advocate their cause.
“If we say no, we will lose the customer. We have to accept the notes and Durbar and Usha bank had assured us that our money will not go waste”, a commercial sex worker named Rekha working in Sonagachi, South- Asia’s largest red light district had told a popular newspaper in the context of demonetisation. “Although commercial sex workers in top categories are facing no problem but those taking only ₹300 and ₹400 are facing great difficulty” said Bharati, mentor of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a commercial sex worker’s organisation to a newspaper. For a profession that has no grievance redressal system or rights to protect them, abuse is bound to increase during times of stress.
Keeping aside the debate about demonetisation, let’s step into the shoes of these commercial sex workers and imagine a night in their lives right after demonetisation. Remember that no one chooses to live a life of a prostitute, they are always forced into it. Even children of these prostitutes find it difficult to survive in the ‘society’.
December 30, 2016
Kamathipura, Mumbai, Maharashtra
Ritika looked at an empty steel box lying next to her bed that once had stacks of green 500 notes. She had managed to hide the money from the hands of her cunning pimp and saved it to provide for a better future for her daughter. But on November 9, she had given away all of the money to her pimp reluctantly and in return had received nothing but a tight slap for stashing so much cash without his knowledge followed by a lot of torture in the name of punishment. That day, on November 30, she had ‘served’ only 2 clients opposed to 5-6 otherwise, she was exhausted and petrified in the thought that on the next day i.e. on New Year’s eve it was going to worse. The clients who came to her were frustrated ones and they made her the outlet of their frustration often leaving her bruised and bleeding.
On 12 pm, a drunk man entered her room thrusting it open with a kick. The pimp came running behind him as drunk men almost never paid and it was a custom in their brothel to take money from them before sending them to a woman. The drunk man glared at the pimp and angrily took out an old 500 rupee note.
“Sir, it is 30th December, it doesn’t work…we cannot take it…” the pimp stammered.
“Bastard!” The drunk man sweared and took out two more 500 notes and threw it on the pimp’s face. “Go deposit it tomorrow! Don’t show me your face again!” Ritika stared in horror at the well-built man. Drunk men scared her because they often became abusive. The pimp stood smiling outside the door on having got thrice the amount for the girl and silently left them alone. After all he still had one day to put the money in the bank.
That night, was the worst night in Ritika’s life. That man abused her and used her like she was a toy. She heard him cursing the government for demonetisation and for taking away all his illegally stacked black money that amounted to a few crores. When he left, she was barely was alive. She was bleeding from almost everywhere with searing pain shooting through her stomach. She was not responsible for demonetisation, she wasn’t responsible for living the life of a commercial sex worker, yet all of a sudden she was bearing the brunt of everyone’s anger. The meagre amount of money her pimp gave her every month used to work as a balm on her wounds but now even that was stopped for three months as a punishment for hiding cash from him. To make matters worse, he vowed to have her 14 year old daughter sleep with a wealthy client on New Year’s eve and sell her virginity at a very high price. Carrying the burden of thoughts in her mind and a searing pain of punishment in her heart, she fainted; only to wake up once again to suffer the tortures of hell.
For Ritika, her daughter and for countless other commercial sex workers, demonetisation had erupted from the deepest levels of hell to burn them alive. Who was to blame for this? Was it the government that failed to take strong steps against human trafficking? Was it the society for refusing to accept the prostitutes as one of ‘them’? Was it the commercial sex workers for trusting people, often their own loved ones, bringing them to such cities and abandoning them? Did we aggravate the terrors of the commercial sex workers in a bid to stop terrorism? Was demonetisation a master stroke, a saviour, a great move?
There are zillions of questions. One doesn’t know the answers to it. One doesn’t know if the move was a master stroke or a bad one or if it will benefit India in the longer run, we just hope it does. What we know is that it isn’t a good time for any country when the innocent suffer helplessly and it’s government doesn’t come to its rescue. People on the lowest rungs of the ladders are usually ignored – prostitutes in India are placed right there. This article is in hope of spreading awareness about their plight and extending help to them in whatever way possible. The invisible, exist.