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Mobile money finds its way into sex workers’ world

Only 25-30% of her customers pay by cash, as Shalu finds it much easier to handle digital money. She calls herself a “symbol of changing India”, or maybe for many, the biggest change in the country’s prostitution business (at least for the tech savvy),

business Updated: Nov 10, 2016 14:07 IST
Sunny Sen
Only 25-30% of her customers pay by cash, as Shalu finds it much easier to handle digital money. She calls herself a “symbol of changing India”, or maybe for many, the biggest change in the country’s prostitution business (at least for the tech savvy), which has so far been dominated by cash – a large source of India’s black money.
Only 25-30% of her customers pay by cash, as Shalu finds it much easier to handle digital money. She calls herself a “symbol of changing India”, or maybe for many, the biggest change in the country’s prostitution business (at least for the tech savvy), which has so far been dominated by cash – a large source of India’s black money.

The mobile wallets, or any form of digital money has never been more relevant to India’s underbelly – after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that notes of ₹500 and ₹1,000 will become “illegal”.

“Only Paytm users call or message me, otherwise don’t disturb … I also accept Airtel Money and MobiKwik,” said Shalu (name changed on request).

Shalu is not the usual merchant who accepts Paytm money transfer – she is an escort operating in south Delhi, who charges anything between ₹1,000 to ₹15,000 depending on the service – lowest for phone sex and the highest for an entire night.

Shalu is not new to the internet – she has been using Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram (the other two are owned by Facebook) for a few years, now. Then she started buying stuff from Flipkart and Snapdeal, and is on dating apps such as Tinder and Happn, where she finds some of her clients.

“If people can buy clothes on the internet, why can’t people buy sex online … I take all kinds of payments – I even have a card swiping machine at my house,” she said.

Only 25-30% of her customers pay by cash, as Shalu finds it much easier to handle digital money. She calls herself a “symbol of changing India”, or maybe for many, the biggest change in the country’s prostitution business (at least for the tech savvy), which has so far been dominated by cash – a large source of India’s black money.

Prostitution is one of the oldest businesses, dating back to second century B.C., which involve about 0.5% of India’s female population as sex workers. The business is not small, as some brothels (like in Kolkata’s red-light area) have an annual revenue of up to ₹14.4 crore – more than some small and medium businesses.

Mobile wallets are an effective medium, as mobile wallets such as Paytm, MobiKwik and Freecharge want to get as many small businesses to use the wallet.

Shalu explains. “I am independent, but some of my friends in the profession who use Paytm keep their commission and transfer the rest of the money to their handler.”

The number of sex workers using digital money is few, but is growing fast. Kajal (name changed), who has about 50-60 escorts under her, said that one year ago “Paytm” was an alien concept in this business, but a lot of people “are willing to experiment now”.

Once the money is in the wallet, Kajal said she and her girls use it for various things, which include shopping, paying bills, buying grocery and even sending money to their family.

The number of people using these wallets will increase as more people download their apps – Paytm’s downloads rose by 400% and MobiKwik’s by 40%, since the time of the announcement.

Payal, a transgender in Delhi, said if the money was transferred to a mobile wallet, clients don’t haggle after “the act”. She is not sure if she can transfer the money into the bank. “Can I do that as well?” she asks. “If that is allowed, I would like to stop taking cash,” Payal said.