As the sun sets in Bharatpur, renowned the world over for its bird sanctuary, torches held by little girls start blinking along the roadside. Ironically, they throw light on a dark side of society - child prostitution.
The girls are mostly aged between 12 and 15, though some are as young as 10. They stand at the roadside along with their fathers and brothers who fix the 'price' for them.
"The customers are mainly truck drivers here. The average 'rate' for one girl for half an hour is Rs.50. They take the girls to their trucks or thatched huts a few hundred metres away from the road," says the brother of a teenaged girl.
Fathers and brothers, mothers and sisters, grandmothers and aunts are well aware how the brutal behaviour of customers often ravages the little girls. Many of the child sex workers contract sexually transmitted diseases.
But that hardly deters their families.
"The better looking girls are sent to red light areas in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and other cities. They earn good money there and send it back to us," the father of a teenaged girl who was sold some time ago in the national capital for Rs.150,000 candidly admitted to an IANS correspondent.
"These girls belong mainly to the Bedia community which is spread over dozens of villages in Bharatpur," says K.K. Mukherjee, who is associated with the Gram Niyojan Kendra (GNK), an NGO working in the area.
GNK has opened a school where 70 children of Bedia prostitutes from surrounding villages come to study and 22 of them, mostly girls, stay in a hostel within the school premises in Roopvas village, about 25 km from Ghatoli.
The Bedia community was traditionally known for its singing and dancing skills but gradually took up prostitution as its main occupation. It falls under the Scheduled Caste category.
"What can we do, we have to send our daughters into this profession as there are no alternative means of livelihood. Despite reservation for the Scheduled Castes no one from our community in this village has a government job," says 58-year-old Bhagwan Das, a resident of Ghatoli.