Mumbai, the financial capital of India and an important port city! Very close to the southern part aka the downtown of Mumbai, stands one of the largest Red Light Areas (RLAs) of India – Kamathipura.
A research study (A Study of Prostitutes in Mumbai by Punekar S.D and Kamala Rao) conducted in 1960 observed that there were around 70,000 prostituted women at that time in the Kamathipura area. However, over the period, the area witnessed a decline in the overall number of prostituted women as well as brothels. Several factors caused this decline. such as the overall rise in population and the consequent rise in the demand for commercial sex, the fast expansion of the city, the police crackdown on the sex trade especially after 1998, the soaring land prices and the RLA’s nearness to the most expensive office/business areas of Mumbai.
While walking through the claustrophobic lanes of Kamathipura, one sees the extremely old and dilapidated infrastructure and superstructure. The land-to-person ratio is adverse to human standards. The electrification and water supply systems have deteriorated beyond repairs and frequently cause mishaps. The situation of accesses, easements, and gutters is awfully squalid and serves as a perfect breeding ground for a variety of communicable diseases. These areas are aptly called vertical slums.
The brothel buildings are juxtaposed in line with each brothel housing over 15 girls and women in a compact space of approximately 200 square feet. Cubicles of 20 square feet with the ability to barely accommodate one bed are their home as well as business worlds. Each of these prostituted girls/women take turns with their customers on a series of 5 to 6 beds which are separated by ordinary walls made of anything from a thin plywood sheet to mere linen. Women who are not engaged with the customers have little access to these beds and largely belong to the road outside the brothel.
The commercial sexual activity that takes place in the brothels reduces sex to a mere mechanical, physical and exploitative activity and can be appalling to any civilized person The brothels are interspersed with a variety of shops that mainly cater to the customers – from hair dressing salons and eateries to paan-cigarette joints and liquor stores. The area is also filled with a number of quacks (unlicensed medical practitioners) mostly specialized in treating sexually transmitted diseases. Besides a couple of cinema houses, there are several video parlors that openly play X-rated films, day and night. They also supply X-rated films, video players, (and TV sets if needed) to the brothels on demand. The inside lanes have several shops (which run a variety of illegal activities) such as gambling dens, and joints supplying liquor and narcotics.
Traditionally, the Red Light Areas (RLAs) were populated by girls and young women supplied from the infamous Devadasi belt (the confluence of Maharashtra, Karnataka and the pre- divided Andhra Pradesh) through the traditional trafficking route of temple based prostitution called the Devadasi system.
In the past century (1900-1999) these areas also witnessed a substantial presence of girls trafficked from the neighboring country, Nepal. In the last quarter of the last century and in the decade that followed a large influx of traffic victim girls and women from Bangladesh dominated the scene and replaced the victims from Devadasi belt and Nepal.
A RLA is unlike a neighborhood, community, colony or mainstream society. In the night, the place is littered with a very large number of unfamiliar faces desperately seeking women, girls, boys or eunuchs for sexual pleasure. One lane the 1st lane of Kamathipura was populated by brothels run by Eunuchs which had eunuchs and young boys to meet the demand for commercial homosexual sex.
The traffic victims of sex trade in the RLA’s suffered the ultimate form of violence. The girls and young women continue to be under the watchful eyes of their traffickers and pimps. Several studies have shown that they earn very little, are perpetually in debt and suffer from a variety of illnesses.
Mumbai is the commercial capital of India. The above RLAs being very close to the commercial heart of Mumbai caught the attention of the fast growing commercial establishments, housing sectors and thus the land sharks. As the city grew, the sex trade also grew in number but the traditional RLAs had severe limits on their expansion. Several changes occurred as a result of many factors. The sex trade started growing in different parts of the city in a dispersed way. The anti-trafficking initiative of the civil society organizations that generated pressure on the enforcement agencies made it difficult for the sex trade to grow further. Child trafficking and prostitution of minors became risky. Hence, these activities started getting located in other parts of the city and in its hinterlands. There was a definite change of hands from brothels to commercial establishments. The total size of the sex trade is believed to have increased in the city but the sex trade in the RLAs certainly decreased.