Nagpur Police Abruptly Shut Down City’s Oldest Red Light Area, Damaging Livelihoods of Sex Workers

WCD minister Yashomati Thakur has criticised the police action, saying they acted without considering how the women would survive.

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Mumbai: Fifteen out of the 16 access points leading to Ganga Jamuna, a red-light district built over 250-years-ago in the heart of Nagpur city, have been barricaded. At least three policemen and a police van fitted with a CCTV camera can be seen standing vigil day and night at each of these entry points. Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, meant to curb “nuisance” or “apprehended danger”, has been imposed across the three-acre area.

Any outside person, especially a man, entering the area is asked for the purpose of their visit. An unconvincing response may result in a thrashing. Over 2,000 women – some single and many of them with young children – have been restricted to the three-acre space. They can barely be seen stepping out of their houses, let alone solicit sex.

On August 11, the Nagpur city police commissioner Amitesh Kumar ordered an abrupt shut down of the space, virtually rendering the whole of Ganga Jamuna jobless. The impact of this sudden and abrupt decision is so grave that most women have not had any income throughout August.

Jaya* [name changed], a woman in her mid-30s, moved from the drought-prone Phulbani district in Odisha to Ganga Jamuna when she was only 14. “That year, we barely had anything to eat at home. I ran away in the hope of finding a job and enough food,” Jaya recalls. “We are facing the same situation once again,” she adds. Jaya is worried about her two children – a daughter who is in Class IV and a son who recently cleared his Class X board exams. “There is absolutely nothing to fall back on. If I don’t earn, my children don’t learn. It is that simple.”

For Alka*, a 28-year-old woman from Ahmednagar, the fear is far worse. She says, she has stopped taking calls from unknown numbers. “I had taken a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh for my younger sister’s wedding right before the lockdown in March last year. I had hoped to repay it slowly. But soon after this area was sealed, the agent (money lender) has begun threatening me with dire consequences,” Alka shared. Alka is unlettered; her seven-year-old daughter is yet to begin formal schooling. “The suddenness of this decision has left me shaken,” she shares.

According to the police’s official count, as many as 188 brothels – 30 multi-storied and other smaller ones – are run within this space. They rent out space for women living within or outside Ganga Jamuna on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Most brothel owners are women who were engaged in sex work in their younger days and had over the years, saved enough money to buy a house in the locality.

While running a brothel is punishable under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (IPTA), 1956, women in sex work are considered “victims” and both the law enforcers and the state ought to work towards their rehabilitation.

Human rights lawyer Nihalsing Rathod, who has been providing legal recourse to some of the women, points to the changes brought to the ITPA law in 1978. “While the commercial aspect of the work is termed illegal, women who are indulging in sex work of their free will can’t be branded as criminals. Women can choose sex work as their vocation without facing any obstruction or criminal action,” Rathod says.

Dinanath Waghmare is a founder member of Sangharsh Wahini, an organisation that has worked dedicatedly with the nomadic and denotified tribes (NT and DNT) in the state. He visited the women soon after the clampdown. Waghmare says close to 80% of women engaged in sex work are from NT and DNT communities from central and eastern India and the rest are from the Scheduled Castes. “These women come from extremely impoverished backgrounds, are landless, with no social, economic or cultural capital and belong to communities that have been long neglected both by the state and the society. The state has only criminalised these communities,” Waghmare observes.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

According to data made available by Nagpur commissioner Amitesh Kumar, between 2011 and now, the police have registered offences in 355 different cases in the district. Of them, 16 cases involved minors and sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act was applied. “These cases led to arrests of around 1137 accused persons. Around 109 children were rescued in this period and an additional 124 women who were forcibly pushed into sex work were sent to protection homes. We have had enough reasons to act sternly,” Kumar claimed.

The police first decided to stop their source of livelihood and then considered the possibility of “rehabilitation”. This, Amitesh Kumar says happened because the women were “unwilling to listen”. “They are taking it as their matter of right, but it is not,” Amitesh Kumar told The Wire, in a telephonic interview.

He further added that the Lakadganj police station, under which the area falls, has been working towards rehabilitating the women and local NGOs like Freedom Firm and Atma Vedana, have also been roped in. “But the women have been dissuaded and made to believe that this is a temporary stop on their work. That isn’t the case. I will not allow illegal sex work and trafficking of young women and children into the flesh trade,” he declared.

For a community that has long been looked at with suspicion, criminalised on a regular basis and have faced inhuman treatment, trusting the state is difficult, says a young graduate from the locality. Her mother, once a sex worker, now owns a brothel in the region. The young woman says her education became possible only because of the struggles her mother endured in her youth. “My mother understands that most of these women end up in Ganga Jamuna because of difficulties. She would inform the police each time she found out that a minor girl was brought to the area. But that did not save my family from police atrocities,” the young woman alleges.

She recalls an incident from December 10 last year, when several women – including those pregnant – and minor girls were allegedly beaten up mercilessly and arrested in a police raid. The incident, reported by The Wire‘s Jahnavi Sen in detail, took place when the police allegedly went to the area to rescue eight 17-year-old girls. An FIR was filed under POCSO and IPTA and sections of the Indian Penal Code on soliciting and trafficking minors for prostitution. All of the women named in the case have been charged under POCSO.

The women had accused the police of indiscriminately detaining people. Teenage, school-going kids were picked up too. Last December, Suman*, a 17-year-old girl, who studies in Class XII, was detained until midnight along with other women at the Lakadganj police station and let go only after her mother pleaded and made her school documents available. “Sab ko vaishya samajte hai ye. Chota, bada, aurat, admi, kuch nahi farak padhta. [They assume all of us here are sex workers. It doesn’t matter, who we are: young, old, women, men, everyone staying here is treated badly],” she rues.

“And the same police have gheroed (surrounded) the entire area now. Imagine our plight,” Suman says. The barricades, the police insist, are not for those living here but for the “men visiting” from outside. “Local residents have all the freedom to move around. We have not stopped anyone,” zonal deputy commissioner of police Lohit Matani told The Wire. He also confirmed that of the 16 access roads leading to Ganga Jamuna, 15 have been sealed. But Matani denied this leads to excessive police presence in the region.

Matani says soon after the order to shut the space was issued, a window was set up at the Lakadganj police station to ensure that women in sex work are able to avail government schemes and are eventually rehabilitated. This ambitious work is, however, yet to take off.

15 of the 16 access points to Ganga Jamuna have been barricaded. Photo: By arrangement

Women and child welfare minister Yashomati Thakur expressed her concern over the sudden decision taken by the police to The Wire. “I have not interfered with the home department’s [which controls the police] work. But it is a matter of grave concern,” Thakur told The Wire. “The police can’t stop their livelihood without ensuring they have adequate alternative means to survive. This will have an adverse impact on their lives. I am visiting the area to understand the ground reality. I will pass orders accordingly,” Thakur added.

On August 23, the women collectively passed a resolution to stop the illegal trafficking of women and minor girls into sex work. The women pledged to help the police in ensuring no illegal work is carried out in the area.

Also Read: How a Nagpur Police Raid to ‘Rescue Underage Sex Workers’ Criminalised an Entire Neighbourhood

Highly politicised issue: Nagpur Police

The police attribute the general feeling of distrust among the women in the community to political interventions. Both Amitesh Kumar and Matani told The Wire that the rehabilitation work could have happened smoothly if not for local politicians who have been “derailing their efforts”. The women here claim there has been no sign of help from the local civic body or the state government yet.

The political divide, however, is evident. Local leaders from the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi have been at the forefront of supporting the women and their right to livelihood, but the BJP leaders want to see the area shut down.

Raju Dhakate, a BJP leader and former corporator from the area, has been fierce with his demands. “These women are polluting the area,” he claims. In his interview with The Wire, Dhakate further claimed that most of them are “dacoits” from the Chambal region of Madhya Pradesh and other parts of central India and are here to conduct criminal work, slurs which are clearly indicative of the casteist and racist connotations that have been associated with NT, DNT and Scheduled Caste communities.

The BJP leader also rejected the more than 250-year historical presence of sex workers in the area. “They have descended here only a decade earlier,” he claimed. Dhakate claims to be working closely with the Nagpur police in the rehabilitation work. He, however, was not able to specify what work has been done so far.

There are several voices countering Dhakate. Like, Raje Mudhoji Bhosale from the royal family of Nagpur, who has written to the police commissioner accusing him of “high-handedness”. “I am not denying that certain aspects like pushing minors into flesh trade, soliciting on road and related activities are illegal but we cannot allow anyone to die hungry,” Bhosale stated in his letter.

Another who has voiced concern is Jwala Jambuvantrao Dhote of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), who claims that the police have acted at the behest of the BJP. “This area has existed for over 250 years. It definitely existed when Devendra Fadnavis was in power. Why is that this is suddenly becoming an issue?” she asks, further pointing to the presence of the BJP in the local Nagpur corporation and their apparent failure to work in the interest of the community here.

The BJP has also used the ‘insider-outsider’ divide to stop the women from working here. In addition to this, the police have pointed to the presence of a dargah, temple and schools near Ganga Jamuna to give their decision to shut the area down some legitimacy.

The police and the BJP’s justifications have found acceptance among a few residents’ groups too. “The area gets a bad name because of few women,” says Aparna Srivastava, who lives close by. She claims most women have found it difficult to get married because of the locality they live in.

NCP’s Dhote says these are ‘absurd middle-class moralities’ which are unnecessarily imposed on the women engaged in sex work. “I have been asking these residents’ groups [which oppose sex work] to show us at least one woman in the neighbourhood who is past 30 and is yet to be married. They can’t point to a single person. Because there really aren’t any.” Dhote says false claims are made to present a woman who is engaged in prostitution as a social evil who needs to be chased away.

Dinanath Waghmare says the provocative “outsiders” logic is conveniently rolled out to only push these women further to the edge. “This red-light area has existed for close to three centuries. The city was built around it. So, it is clear who is an outsider here and who really belongs to the area,” Waghmare says.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.