'Illegal' Police Raids Have Forced Pune's Sex Workers to Operate in Unsafe Conditions

In the name of rescuing minors and foreigners, the police have picked up adult sex workers and lodged them in shelter homes. 

Pune: Commercial sex workers in Pune’s red-light district have protested the misuse of Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act following alleged harassment and intimidation by the police in the name of checking documents. Multiple raids between January and April at their establishments have not just affected their business but also compelled them to continue their work from insecure locations at lower rates, affecting their livelihood. Many have even been forced into shelter homes.

Pune’s red-light area, Budhwar Peth, houses over 2,100 sex workers, as per police records. Over 1,000 others come to the area to business and then return home.

As per a recent report, in early January, Pune Police began collecting identity and address proofs of sex workers. Many, however, expressed their inability to secure documents like Aadhaar and ration card due to lack of residence proof. When they failed to provide documents, the police allegedly threatened them with arrests.

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Moreover, the police claimed that the ‘illegal’ raids were conducted to rescue minors and Bangladeshi sex workers, but most of those sent to shelter homes were adult, Indian women.

The findings have been compiled by NGO Saheli Sangh along with Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM) through interviews and surveys. Tejaswi Sevekari, who runs Saheli, said: “On January 16, police held people coming to the area captive. They were photographed, filmed and videos were made viral on the internet, thus humiliating customers and ostracising sex workers.”

One of the sex workers, on the condition of anonymity, said that the police put barricades on the road leading to Budhwar Peth between 11 pm and 5 am. She said: “Many of us were booked under Section 110 and 117 of the Bombay Police Act. Police would physically and verbally abuse us.”

Manish Gupte of MASUM said: “In the name of a rescue operation of minors and foreigners, police carried out raids at brothels. They picked up adult sex workers who voluntarily entered the profession and put them in shelter homes. Sex workers are being released from shelter homes only if their legal guardians come to get them.”

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She added, “Many sex workers come to this area for a few hours to do business and return to home. Their families are not aware of it (their work). Some of these women left their families years ago. How can they disclose contact details of family members? Over 25 women have been confined to shelter homes for the last 2-3 months.”

A 30-year-old sex worker, who was taken to a shelter home after a raid, has been living there for over three months. She said, “The police is asking for the address and contact details of my legal guardian. But I have no relatives and I had entered this profession of my own free will.”

When asked about the raids, Suhas Bawache, deputy commissioner of police of Faraskhana area, under which Budhwar Peth falls, said the operation was carried out, among other reasons, to deter women from joining this profession. He said, “We carried out a survey of the number of women staying in this area, number of pimps and rooms being used. Many criminals and anti-social elements visit the area during night hours. Half of them come to see the fun. We wanted to stop it.”

He added, “Besides, sex workers had started coming out of the red-light area to attract customers. Many customers would pick up sex workers from various points. These points would attract criminals. Though we have carried out raids, not many sex workers have been booked. We hope that no other woman or minor join the profession.”

Gupte, however, said, “This is moral policing. Police have claimed that raids are for the rehabilitation of minor girls. But shelter homes where women are kept are making them sign an undertaking that they would not return to sex work and have threatened to arrest them if they are seen in Budhwar Peth again.”

Customers are afraid of their photos and videos being released. As a result, the number of people going to the red-light area has come down to less than half. Many customers have been asking sex workers to come to other areas, which adds to their travel expenses and also puts them at risk.

Mahadevi T., the chairman of Saheli, said, “The crackdown has put sex workers’ negotiating powers, safety and their sexual health at risk. Sex workers are forced to charge less and work in an unsafe condition. They are experiencing a loss of livelihood, making them unable to pay bills. That can lead to hunger, starvation, indebtedness and inability to support children.”

Meena Seshu of the National Network of Sex Workers said: “Misusing of the anti-trafficking provision of IPC Section 370 A against women who are in the profession by their own free will should be condemned. Judiciary should take action.”

Women’s groups have demanded that sex work be decriminalised so that those who are in this profession don’t have to suffer arbitrary police action.

Varsha Torgalkar is an independent journalist based in Pune.