Beyond brothels: How real estate and online sites are changing red light areas
Thirty-four-year-old Sangeeta is mildly irritated at having been woken up and summoned to 50 GB Road to talk to a journalist. A client had kept her up late the previous night, she complains. “And it is too hot to sleep during the day. Bauji doesn’t get coolers installed in the rooms. Just those old fans,” she says, referring to the landlord who rents out rooms to her and a few other sex workers. Upgrading facilities is understandably not a priority for the landlord who wants to sell off the existing property and move out of GB Road, Delhi’s infamous red light area. “He has been talking of selling off for the past four years. Many of the old girls who used to be in my room before have left. He doesn’t want to get any new ones. He says once we also leave he will sell the house,” she says.
Vidya Balan’s April release, the Srijit Mukherjee-directed Begum Jaan, is the latest of many Bollywood films that have been set in red light areas or brothels – the Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil starrer Mandi, for example, and Mahesh Bhatt’s 1991 film Sadak starring Pooja Bhatt and Sanjay Dutt. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! also featured the red light area of Falkland Road in Mumbai, captured in detail by photographer Marie Ellen Mark in the 1970s. But in an age of websites offering solutions for people looking for paid (as well as unpaid) sex, sophisticated escort services providing sex in the comfort of hotel rooms or rented apartments, mushrooming massage parlours that offer sex on the side, not to mention the ease of reaching out to sex workers over the phone, mail and WhatsApp, are ‘physical’ red light areas slowly fading away?
At GB Road, an NGO worker who has lived and worked among the sex workers here for 40 years but doesn’t want to be named, points to the locked doors of rooms that had once housed brothels. Many of the sex workers have left to look for greener pastures. In Mumbai’s Kamathipura, once among Asia’s biggest red light areas, real estate expansion has pushed the brothels into only two of the 14 lanes across which they were once spread. In Kolkata, Sonagachi continues to thrive, but even here business is not restricted to the brothels.
The year that changed Delhi’s GB Road
Once upon a time, it is said Delhi had five red light areas . Most people living in GB Road believe that the plan to move all the brothels to GB Road was made under the British, though the actual shift happened only after independence. The area was planned in a way that the buildings would have shops on the ground floor and brothels above. That format continues and during the day GB Road is like any other busy shopping area, albeit seedy looking. The roads are choc-a-bloc with four and two-wheelers and pedestrians and it is difficult to find parking. It takes a little acclimatising to the surroundings before one can spot the women, some in bright clothes and heavy make-up, sitting by the doors or peeping down from the high windows. It takes an even greater level of familiarity with the area to pick out the pimps.
According to the estimates of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) chairperson, Swati Maliwal, there are approximately 90 brothels and 5,000 sex workers currently operating in GB Road. The number, says the NGO worker, is only 25 per cent of what used to be there before 2001. “There was trouble in 2001. The authorities had started taking serious action against trafficking.There were raids. There was talk of rehabilitation, but that initiative never succeeded,” he says. A spokesperson for Shakti Vahini, an NGO that works against human trafficking, says, “In the last five years Shakti Vahini has conducted more than 100 search operations in GB Road in collaboration with the police and Crime Branch. We have been able to rescue 68 victims of trafficking.”
The problem with the pimps
The other problem is organised crime by the pimps, says the NGO worker. “As the business in brothels went down owing to action against human trafficking, a few of the brothel owners started engaging pimps in organised crime. They would loot and beat up clients. Few victims want to report this to the police as they don’t want it known that they were in a red light area. The pimps gave GB Road an even more unsavoury reputation. The good clients, those who would actually pay well, started staying away,” says the NGO worker.
Sangeeta points to a long scar just under her chin which she says she got when a pimp attacked her with a knife for trying to stop him from looting a prospective client. Another sex worker, she says, was so badly injured in a fight with a pimp that she needed 32 stitches. The NGO worker believes that some of these pimps are paid by real estate sharks who hope that with the business gone, the brothel owners will have no option but to sell off their properties – just as Sangeeta’s landlord wants to do. “A few of the houses have already been taken over by real estate companies,” he says. Nimmi, a former sex worker who now has a few girls working for her, admits that she has often considered selling.
It’s a makeover that has already happened in Kamathipura. The erstwhile red light area in Mumbai is gentrifying fast, rising vertically, and replacing old residents with new. In the introduction to her iconic book Falkland Road photographer Mary Ellen Mark describes the road that was an extension of the Kamathipura red light area, as one “lined with old wooden buildings. On the ground floor there are cage-like structures with girls inside them. Above these cages the buildings rise three or four storeys, and at every window there are more girls – combing their hair, sitting in clusters on the windowsills, beckoning to potential customers”.
The emergence of AIDS in the city in the late 1980s was partially responsible for changing Kamathipura. Customers began to stay away, and the police started cracking down on brothels as fear of the new disease spread. Many sex workers left for other cities, or far-flung highway-adjacent suburbs like Mira Road where growing populations and burgeoning orchestra bars and dance bars offered the promise of good living.
In 1996, came a new law that allowed old buildings to be redeveloped. Real-estate prices have been rising here ever since. “In 2000, residential property was valued at ₹8,000 to ₹10,000 per sq ft in the area. By 2007, it had risen to ₹10,000 to ₹12,000 per sq ft and now people are willing to pay ₹18,000 to ₹20,000 per sq ft,” says Pavan B Chandan of Buildwell Developers. His company is currently working on a 27-storey residential project in Kamathipura Lane 2.
“There is still stigma attached to the area, but the fact that it is in south-central Mumbai has been driving up the price nonetheless,” says Pankaj Kapoor, director of realty consultancy Liases Foras. There’s now a plan for cluster redevelopment here, which means the government will work with a developer to reimagine the whole area.
This generally means planned residential and recreational zones, high-rise buildings, gardens, wider roads and commercial areas for shops and other establishments. Redevelopment will give each existing tenant a flat. Plot owners stand to get a minimum of two flats each. Most of the sex workers are neither tenants nor owners. They will not be compensated. “Many have already moved out because of pressure from residents,” says Brijesh Arya of NGO Pehchan. From about 50,000 sex workers in 1992, there are now less than 2,000.
Sex work in Mumbai, meanwhile, is now scattered across the city and suburbs. Smartphones are making it easier to find and coordinate with customers. “Many now call the women elsewhere, to avoid the stigma of visiting a brothel,” says 35-year-old Meenakshi. The internet has changed how the women operate within the lanes too. “We ensure that clients do not switch on their phones inside the room. No one wants to be seen on internet videos,” says Shanta.
The virtual market
Meanwhile, the virtual sex market is teeming with alternatives. An online search throws up weblinks to many escort services, with the option to meet the woman of one’s choice at a hotel or apartment. One can choose one’s partner from among foreigners, college students, housewives, models and actors, air hostesses etc. Rates vary from ₹5000 to ₹15,000 and above – a far cry from seedy GB road where sex can be bought for as little as ₹200-500 . There are mobile numbers for interested clients to call with their requests. Many of the girls from GB Road have left, says Sangeeta, either to cruise the streets or join one of these escort services.
Even Kolkata’s Sonagachi, which has fared better than GB Road or Kamathipura, has not remained untouched by the lure of new business options. According to Durbar Mahilla Samanavaya Samity, in the last five years the number of sex workers in Sonagachi has increased from 7,000 to 11,000. The thriving business ensures that brothel owners are able to meet real estate prices to retain their rooms and are not under pressure to sell off.
Even so, many of the women from Sonagachi also work for escort services. “Having sex workers in escort services is cheap and easy. There is no way to tell the difference, when the Sonagachi girls are decked up and wear nice dresses. The girls too earn extra money,” said the manager of a Kolkata-based escort service.
So is this the end of red light areas? “For a certain category of people, such as college students, migrant labour and daily wagers, who don’t want to pay more and tap into other services this (the red light area) is still the best option.These also continue to be key places where victims are trafficked to from other states,” says the spokesperson for Shakti Vahini. DCW chairperson Swati Maliwal agrees. “Business in GB Road is far from over. There are tehkhanas in every kotha. Whenever there is a raid, minors and trafficked girls are hidden here. A place like this should not exist and the sex workers should be immediately rehabilitated” she says.
Once upon a time, the red light area was more than just a market. The brothel symbolised a life of abuse, but was also home and refuge – as was the relationship between the sex worker and the madam of the brothel, “one of master and slave but also of mother and daughter”, Marie Ellen Mark had written. Perhaps such emotions have little place in today’s shifting spaces.