The drive from Mandsaur to Neemuch along the state highway 31 in northwest Madhya Pradesh takes one through the usual scenery of an Indian countryside. Until, of course, the girls appear by the roadside.
With faces painted garishly and decked up in their Sunday best, the girls wait in groups or alone, soliciting customers. Most are minors, making this stretch of the road a paedophile’s delight.
This is the land of the Banchras, a community for which prostitution is a way of life. The eldest daughter of the family usually becomes a prostitute and earns for the family till she becomes old. Then another younger girl takes over. The male members of the family act as the pimp.
A section of the community – once a nomadic tribe forced to give their girls to local chieftains – fiercely guards the tradition which gives them the luxury of feeding off their daughters without doing anything.
The 15,000-odd members of the community are spread over 70 ‘deras’ – settlements -- in Neemuch, Mandsaur and Ratlam districts. Their settlement in Mandsaur is around 210km from Indore.
Efforts of the younger generation to end this cruel practice have led to conflict with the elders but many have managed to break free. Many have left the profession, got education and some of them even have government jobs.
One of them has also become a ‘patwari’ while several others are nurses, teachers and forest department employees.
But despite the changes, the stigma remains. Many Banchras who are well off have shifted from the ‘deras’ to the nearby towns and cities and have even changed their surname, calling themselves ‘Sondhiya Rajputs’.
Pappu Dahima, himself from the community and a founder-member of the Banchra Samaj Sudhar Samiti, blamed “powerful, vested interests” within his community for this sorry state of affairs.
“These men want to sit idle and in the name of tradition and make their daughters work as prostitutes. They are in a majority and resist all change. And it is again tradition which makes them demand reverse-dowry if any boy wants to marry a Banchra girl. The poor Banchra boys are finding it difficult to find a bride,” Pappu added.
Those who share’s Pappu views feel that only strong police action against Banchra parents who make their girls work as prostitutes, coupled with government support can end this practice in the community.
In Khakriya Kheri village, 50-year-old Nirmala recalled her days as a prostitute and also said that her daughter Roma (25) too was pushed into the profession before breaking free.
Roma married Mukesh, a daily-wage earner, and have two children who are attending school. “I do not want them to follow my footsteps, but it is lack of options and tradition that is driving girls into prostitution,” Roma said.
Government effort has been too little and too far between to have any realistic impact within the community, he adds.
The Indore-based joint director of woman and child welfare department Sandhya Vyas -- who had worked among the Banchras – said that the “girls have to be taken out of the environment and given proper education and shown an alternative way of life. This is a long process and needs commitment from those in charge”.
She also regretted that there was no follow-up of the Nirmal Abhiyan – the government drive to end the practice -- as the collectors who initiated the programme were transferred.
In the past 15 years, there have been two major interventions that have left their mark on the Banchras.
One was the Nirmal Abhiyan in 1998 under which young girls of the community were educated in hostels in Indore and the other was in 2011 when Banchra settlements were raided by police as it was found that many of the children who were being forced into prostitution had been kidnapped by the Banchras.
When the raids were carried out, there was panic among the Banchra community as many were arrested and charged with human trafficking. Many of the Banchras who were not arrested closed shop and no Banchra girls were to be seen along the Ratlam-Neemuch highway. But that lasted for all of six months.
Now, it is business as usual.