Police crackdowns and higher rents are driving Mumbai’s commercial sex industry out of traditional red-light areas and underground, with calls on Friday from social workers to boost efforts to ensure sex workers’ lives are not put at risk.
The commercial sex industry in Mumbai, one of the biggest destinations in the country for trafficked women, was once concentrated in decrepit brothels in the Kamathipura and Falkland Road areas in South Mumbai.
But the industry has moved north to suburbs like Vashi, Bhiwandi and Bhandup, and to less identifiable small businesses and private residences over the past five to 10 years while reporting of rape cases has jumped 390 per cent in four years.
The move from the traditional red-light district has come as industries including financial services moved north due to soaring real-estate prices but raised fears about protecting sex workers, many of whom are victims of trafficking.
“The entire modus operandi of the commercial sex industry is changing,” said Shailja Mehta at Dasra, a non-profit in Mumbai that has examined sex trafficking in India.
“It’s become less institutionalised, less formal, and is much more underhand and subtle now.” Mumbai, India’s financial hub, has always been a magnet for migrant workers in search of better economic opportunities as domestic help or in the entertainment industry. Along with the migrants came traffickers.
Most women and children are brought from other states and from neighbouring countries including Nepal and Bangladesh, under the guise of securing a well-paid job in a home or retail establishment.
Instead, many are trafficked into sex work fronted by salons and massage parlours, or forced into manual labour. Almost 36 million people are enslaved worldwide, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index; nearly half, or about 16 million, are in India.
“Mumbai’s commercial-sex industry has gone from being quite a public, overt operation to a private, covert business,” said Sanjay Macwan, field officer director in Mumbai at non-profit IJM (International Justice Mission).
“The nature of the violence against these girls and women is different now, and harder to observe. It is also very hard to track and bring perpetrators to justice, because even the victims don’t quite know who’s the trafficker, who’s the pimp.” India’s commercial-sex industry generates revenues of up to $343 billion a year, according to a 2014 report by the network Global March Against Child Labour.
Raids on which IJM has accompanied the police to rescue trafficked women have included an under-construction building and a residential apartment off a busy street in one suburb.
“Earlier, there was a good system because you had NGOs in and around the red-light areas, and they kept in touch with the police, and the police were sensitised to the issue of trafficking and commercial sex workers,” said Nandini Thakkar, a legal consultant at Save the Children India in Mumbai.
“Now, it is harder to monitor and intervene.” Alongside Mumbai, neighbouring towns such as Thane, Pune and Sangli are also emerging as destinations for trafficked sex workers, according to research by Dasra.
A concerted effort will be needed, involving the community at large, to track, prevent and intervene in cases involving commercial sex workers, said Macwan.
“The private establishments are much more in number than the public establishments,” he said. “We need to be much more sophisticated, much more technologically advanced to crack down on these covert operations.”