There is no doubt that the pandemic has devastated the lives of each individual residing in the country in some way. The ones to suffer the highest degree of turbulence have been the sections that are not recognized by the law. The nationwide lockdown has emptied their pockets and charged them with impunity. Prostitution, according to the Britannica encyclopedia, is the practice of engaging in relatively indiscriminate sexual activity, in general, with someone who is not a spouse or a friend, in exchange for immediate payment in money or other valuables. Forced prostitution affects not only women but also people who identify as the third gender. The commonest mode of carrying out the business of prostitution is through the establishment of brothels in the shady and secluded parts of organized towns or cities. Forced prostitution is yet another form of violence perpetrated on women by men.
Though the act of voluntary prostitution is legal in India, related activities such as soliciting, pimping, curbs, brothels, crawling, pandering, etc. are not allowed and punishable under the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act 1956. The biggest known areas in India where prostitution is carried out are situated in the big metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, and Chennai. Of these, the redlight areas of Mumbai and Kolkata deserve special mention. According to 2016 data collected by UNAIDS, the total number of prostitutes in India is approximately 657,829. The number of unaccounted prostitutes lies somewhere between a staggering 3 to 10 million. Therefore, India stands as the biggest and fastest-growing market for sex workers. This sector has a yearly turnover of around 8.3 billion dollars. Despite all this, the larger part of this sector remains unregulated by the Indian government.
HISTORY OF PROSTITUTION
Prostitution flourished in various regimes in India, from the early Hindu empires to the Mughals and up to the British Empire. The origin of this profession is very closely intertwined with the artistic and cultural history of our country. There have always been women in the courts of legendary kings who have catered to the needs of the nobility of the empire. As time and dynasties changed, so did the names of these women, but the basic nature and demand of their jobs to this date remain the same. In the courts of Mughal kings, these women were popularly known as tawaifs, who lit up the fortress with their unparalleled skills in dance and music, also known as mujra. The mention of Apsaras in various Hindu relics hints towards the very same practice. The Devadasi system also deserves a special mention here, where a young girl on the brink of puberty was dedicated to the service of a temple, temple priest, or a local deity. To be a devadasi, women had to go through a ceremony named PottuKattu, which was somewhat equivalent to a marriage ceremony. Devadasi had a high rank in early Indian society; they were exceptionally affluent and considered art’s protectors. Certain social, political, religious, and financial factors caused a decline in the status of the females practicing the devadasi system, and as a result, they had to turn to prostitution for their bread and butter. The mention of the practice of prostitution can be found in the Vedas, particularly the Rigveda, which is considered to be one of the building blocks of Hindu society. The Arthasashtra, penned by Kautilya, another celebrated work of Hindu culture, talks at length about the various vocations practiced by women in early India. It also talks about the RupjiVa, a woman who made her living out of the showcase of her beauty. This can be equated with the present practice of prostitution.
Through the establishment of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, the practice of prostitution took a peculiar turn. Though the imperial powers considered this to be a necessary evil, they frowned upon this practice to a great extent. There were a large number of brothels managed by the imperials across the country. The big red light area of GB Road in Delhi and Sonagachi in Kolkata is a progeny of the same. There were brothels present inside the cantonments of the British soldiers where a somewhat controlled form of prostitution was carried out between the soldiers and the prostitutes under the supervision of the British powers. The British enacted the Cantonment Act of 1864 to regulate this practice within the edifices of British military bases.
Since December 2019, the situation of all sex workers in the country has deteriorated to an all-time low. Though a substantial number of NGOs are working tirelessly for the upliftment of this marginalized community, the efforts don’t seem to be enough. The condition has deteriorated so much that these workers cannot even feed themselves. The older women working in this field are frequently asked by their owners to vacate their dwellings and are forced to shift to even gloomier parts of the city. This phenomenon is pretty common in almost all the cities with renowned red-light areas, like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai. Many of them have resorted to online modes of texting and video conferencing, but here the risk of non-payment and recording is extremely high. The ones not able to manage online means are reduced to beggary, often going to bed hungry. The workers who have set up establishments and who have substantial standards are also affected, as the commute of clients towards these establishments has been drastically reduced due to the lockdowns imposed by various governments. Those who managed to come often tried to escape the liability of making full payment. The children of these sex workers are also not able to receive proper medical and educational support due to the COVID-stricken situation and the social stigmas surrounding their work as wood for the fire.
The Apex court of the country has directed the state and central governments to provide necessary arrangements for the proper habitation of sex workers across the country. The honorable court has ordered the government to provide free dry rations to all the sex workers identified by the Nations AIDS Control Organization and district legal authorities without the procurement of any identification documents like the ration card and the Aadharcard, as providing the same by these workers would be extremely difficult. According to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the right to food has been identified as a human right and the same was reiterated in a recent judgment by a bench led by Justice L. Nageswara in the apex court. The plight of these workers was brought to the attention of the Supreme Court by The Lawyers Committee, a human rights organization based in Bangalore. Durbar Mahila Samanvay Committee, situated in the red light area of Sonagachi, is a community-building organization often regarded as the torchbearer for 65,000 sex workers across West Bengal and was imperative in drawing the attention of the Hon’ble Court towards the plight of the sex workers in these desperate times. It urged the court to state that the sex workers were entitled to live with dignity and have sufficient access to food, shelter, sanitation, and, above all, social protection. The most impressive stand for the comfort of this marginalized section was taken by the government of Tamil Nadu, where a dynamic bureaucracy, along with a diligent healthcare department, has left no stone unturned to provide relief. The social welfare department, with an NGO named Madhumati as its secretary, has implemented damage control on the worsened state of affairs.
With the world running at a fast pace, some people are always left behind, and they are always marginalized based on several factors, but this is not what development means. Upliftment of the poor and unrecognized is development in its truest sense. The biggest obstacle for our country’s sex workers is not the coronavirus, but the social stigma associated with this profession. It is unclear whether the efforts of the government and various independent helpers are evidence of a changing mindset in the country or merely a one-time relief. The relief provided by the Supreme Court looks like more of a one-time relief rather than breaking the prejudices of society. For making an inclusive society, the needs of the marginalized have to be addressed, as, to evaluate the development of a society, the development of the weaker sections is tantamount evidence. The biggest reason for this is the constant stigmatization of the industry. The sex workers have always remained in the grey area of law that brings them immense misfortune and hatred from some particular sections of the society, though the awareness regarding ideas like personal dignity, individualism, and sex education has reached our country, still, a lot of work needs to be done to incorporate this into the everyday lives of the people of our country.
Author(s) Name: Dhananjay Dubey ( Nirma University, Ahmedabad)