Sumati (22) has just taken a pay cut by almost 70 per cent, Malthy (25) has moved to a transit camp in Pratiksha Nagar, Wadala, about 15 km north from where she lived in Grant Road and Gouri, (24), has developed Orkut and Facebook profiles with the help of one of her clients.
Struck by global slowdown, falling incomes and rising extortion rates, sex workers in Mumbai’s Kamathipura, country’s biggest red light area, are devising coping mechanisms.
Land barons, quick to identify the vulnerability of sex workers and madams trying to heal themselves from the body blow that their trade has suffered, are out in the open with cash bags much smaller than they could ever imagine even six months ago, to buy property in prime south Mumbai locality.
According to estimates, 60 per cent property in the area has changed hands, the latest being Bohri chawl one, two and three in 11th lane of Kamathipura and a building in 14th lane, home of middle-income group sex workers. Small and medium scale industrial units now occupy these premises.
“The minimum rate for a 10-minute session has dropped to Rs 30 from Rs 100. There are just not enough customers,” says Malthy who has just shifted to Mira Road, 40 km up north, but comes here everyday for sex work. She has reduced her charges from Rs 500 to Rs 150.This means, more sessions a day, more soliciting, which in the eyes of law is a crime though sex work per se isn’t. “More women are now picked up by the police, who have raised their extortion rates to Rs 1200 per case from Rs 700,” says Sumati.
Andheri, Kandivali, Malad, Mira Road in western suburbs, Ghatkopar, Bhiwandi, Wadala in central, Vashi in Navi Mumbai are emerging as new hubs for commercial sex workers (CSWs). The upper strata are exclusively using mobile and Internet networks, and the guise of escort services.
The HIV/AIDS threat looms large as sex workers operating independently, lose their powers of collective bargaining to enforce condom use. “Their concentration was restricted in Kamathipura. But now they are spreading across the city. This makes intervention and screening almost impossible,” said SS Kudalkar, project director, Mumbai District AIDS Control Society (MDACS).
“The number of floating sex workers has shot up, particularly in the residential areas like Andheri and Goregaon west,” said Haresh Phatak additional project director, MDACS. He claimed that new zones have now been officially marked in the city as red light areas. “In brothel-based sex work, the community has certain bargaining power which floating sex workers do not have,” says Prabha Desai of Sanmitra Trust, an NGO running HIV campaign in new-found red light areas. Also a large section of women has moved to virtual platforms to operate, says Kudalkar.
But Kamathipura remains the El Dorado for sex workers from other parts of the country. “Where else would you get, even in times like these, a daily collective deposit of Rs1 lakh in the bank only from 2000-odd CSWs?”asks one CSW.