When the light turns RED

BY MUGDHA VARIYAR, SHOUMELI DAS, PRATITI CHAKRABORTY

Pune’s vibrant night-life brings out the youth brigade in its hundreds, upbeat and ready to paint the town red. In another part of town, the colour assumes a completely contrasting connotation.

Buddhwar Peth is notorious as Pune’s red light area, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. This controversial area is close to Dagdusheth Ganpati and Kaka Halwai; both abuzz with activity and the daily humdrum of traffic and travel. The dingy lanes and dilapidated houses of Buddhwar Peth catch our attention immediately. The overbearing stench makes us flinch involuntarily.

While Hindi films may have accustomed us to the stereotypically gaudy sex workers and their traits, but when we see the young girls standing stoically on the streets, the reality hits hard.

Our first stop is the Shukravar Peth Police Station, mainly because it seems too naïve to wander around without any understanding of the place. PSI Yadav tells us that most of these girls are between 18 and 30 years of age. “They mainly come from Nepal, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar. Some of them are forced to work here, some are conned into the business with dreams of a better life; but most of them come here by choice, having fled from utter poverty and other problems.”

How do the police check this racket? “We often conduct raids to ensure minor girls are not being forced into this occupation. Offenders are taken into custody under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act, 1956,” Yadav explains.

As we walk along the streets of Budhwarpeth, we see girls huddled up on the sidewalk, on stairs and near shops. A sign board on a shaky building catches our attention – Akhila Budhwar Peth Devdasi Sanstha. We enter the gate promptly, to be greeted by a woman in her fourties, a peer with the organization. Her name is Kamala Kattipalla from Bijapur in Karnataka.

In a candid interaction with Kamala, she revisited her life story. Kamala arrived in the city at the age of fifteen with a hope for finding work and money. She soon found herself running out of choices and was forced to become a sex-worker. She continued to work for a long time before one of her customers agreed to take her from there. Today, not only does Kamala have a family with one son but also does her bit to help other sex workers who need her guidance. She now stays in the city and works with the government-sponsored organisation.

She takes us around the corner where a group of girls are chattering. As we introduce ourselves, they all remain mum and indifferent.

“We face no problems here”, replies one woman, rather indignantly. Though initially apprehensive about answering questions, she soon loosens up. She is from Uttar Pradesh, and has been working in Buddhwar Peth for over a year. Her heavily-made up eyes light up and her pursed lips give way to a smile at the mention of her three month old son, who sleeps upstairs as she waits for customers. Surrounding her are five other young girls, and one middle-aged woman all of whom stare at us, stoically. The fatigue of their twelve hour work day is cleverly hidden. A sixth joins the group in a huff, after angrily refusing a customer who was haggling with her.

When she prefers to stay silent, Kamala takes over. “It is tough”, she says, “since the girls come here at a very young age and get into the business. Some work throughout the night and many face health problems. The police have also given us a lot of trouble, since they round up everyone under the PITA act and keep them in custody for days.”

We make our way to the office of the Akhila Buddhwar Peth Devdasi Sanstha. There Mr. Prakash Yadav, who manages the organisation, briefs us on the work that the organisation does. “We offer health assistance to these girls in every way possible. From getting them tested for HIV and STDs to giving out free condoms, we try to maximize health awareness for their benefit”, he says.

The health and hygiene of the sex workers is a wide spread concern apart from trafficking. To address this major issue, there are four NGOs that operate in the area. Ensuring that these women stay healthy and disease free is a huge challenge, owing to the lack of literacy among the women, or Key Persons (KPs) as they are referred to.

Manali Ahir, a counseller at the organization, gives us a lot of insight on the world of sex-workers in Pune.   “Our main aim is to create awareness and provide medical services,” she tells us. “We go to brothels, talk to these KPs and give them the necessary medical aid. Our volunteers conduct regular blood tests, six monthly HIV tests, provide them with condoms and any other clinical assistance that may be required”, says Manali Ahir. This form of Targetted Intervention by the organisation is funded by programmes like Pathfinder as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

However, she does clarify that during the peak season of the business such as the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, the organization refrains from excessive intervention as they don’t like to affect their work.

Ahir talks about their earnings. “They earn between Rs. 100 to Rs. 200 for services of 15-20 minutes. Some of them charge about Rs. 500 per hour, and some take up to Rs. 1200 for the entire night.

For women with toddlers, there is a crèche facility provided by organisations such as Vanchit Vikas and Kaya Kalp. Organizations like Saheli work towards providing formal education for sex workers with the inclination to learn.

At this point of time, one cannot help but wonder what happens to these women after their prime. While a few fortunate settle down with their Regular Partners (RPs), others return to their villages with their life savings.  A few choose to become managers who help protect the girls.

We received more food for thought than we expected. Choice, exploitation, bravery, greed, necessity, resignation. Different outlooks, crammed into four gallis.

The day turns into an experience of a life-time and an eradicator of previously-held notions, as we open up to a different world that stands in our very midst.

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