Noble intentions are rarely a guarantee of success and that could be true as well of the Supreme Court’s initiative to help sex workers. It began as an appeal against the judgment and order—dated 25th July, 2007, and passed by the Calcutta High Court—which involved the murder of a sex worker. Ultimately, it was converted into a litigation for the protection of sexually abused women who are compelled into prostitution: not for pleasure, but because of abject poverty.

Since the initial order was passed by the Supreme Court in February 2011, much water has flowed under the bridge. One of the more important fallouts of the changed litigation was the constitution of a panel headed by senior advocate Pradip Ghosh, and extensive studies to demystify the situation and assess the proposals of various stakeholders. But the most crucial inputs have come from vulnerable women within and outside the ambit of prostitution.

The panel tries to involve, apart from state governments, NGOs working among sex workers as well as sex workers themselves through various collectives, in addition to police and community representatives across the country. What has emerged is a collage of an extensive range of situations, needs, obstacles and possible solutions, adding to the confusion and difficulty in arriving at a uniform solution that might work.

The panel first advocated a comprehensive system of safe homes for rescued women and children of sex workers, vocational training and income-generating activities. However, the reactions from different parts of the country threw up so many options, fears and variables that it shed new light on dangers and possibilities hitherto unforeseen, threatening to render the task of the panel extremely difficult, if not completely incapable of execution.

The proposals by NGOs and sex worker representatives vary widely, both in the eyes of the government and of the proposers, and the functional network of the sex worker’s immediate community.

While no major schemes have been launched after the Supreme Court panel was set up, many states already have a rescue, relief and rehabilitation programme. Various schemes to rescue and rehabilitate trafficked sex workers and minors in prostitution have been introduced by state departments and NGOs across the country, along with livelihood alternatives. The programmes vary from state to state, and so does the impact. In fact, the impact varies from region to region and even from woman to woman.

The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) is a forum of sex workers set up in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest red-light area. Established in the early Nineties, it is meant to address a wide range of issues affecting sex workers. Durbar in Bengali means indomitable.

The brainchild of Dr Smarajit Jana, then head of the HIV/AIDs project in the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health in Kolkata, it began with a census and intervention programme for STDs and HIV among sex workers in Sonagachi. The STD/HIV Intervention Programme (SHIP) launched in the early Nineties was progressively eased into the hands of the DMSC which Jana set up, using sex workers to assist in his programme as peer educators, to spread information on HIV/AIDS and promote use of condoms.

During his interaction with the sex workers of Sonagachi, Jana became familiar with and often involved in various other problems of sex workers, such as their compulsion to keep their money with their landladies, madams, families, paramours, friends, etc., who often cheated them out of thousands of rupees earned over the years. Lacking education, a proper address and proof of identity, and burdened with the stigma of their profession, they found it impossible to open bank accounts.

In this scenario, a major victory for the DMSC was the launch of the Usha Cooperative Bank exclusively for sex workers in the face of much red tape, opposition and difficulties, even changing some laws that came in the way of forming this society.  It laid the first stone for an empowerment process that spans a wide spectrum of activities today. Daily deposits from sex workers, sometimes contributing as little as Rs.10, now come to Rs.17 crore and there is a micro-credit programme as well. It has helped free sex workers from the stranglehold of moneylenders and madams who kept them in perpetual debt through exorbitant interest (daily interest of Rs.70 on a Rs.500 loan) and manipulative accounting, ensuring that the women stayed trapped.

With the steady accumulation of savings, their financial empowerment created an improvement in other areas: their access to loans, the ability to educate their children, better living conditions and lifestyle. This success and empowerment helped the formation of other groups and programmes under the DMSC umbrella.

One of these is Mamata, a network of HIV-positive women. It fights for humane treatment of such women in hospitals and enables access to free medication, counselling and legal help where required. Another programme is Amra Padatik, for the children of sex workers. It not only fights for non-discriminatory access to educational institutions without insisting on a father’s name, but has helped dropouts continue their education through an open school and university.

A third is Komal Gandhar, a serious cultural troupe that has performed professionally in India and abroad. The Berebheng (breaking barriers) programme focuses on the education of children. There are also various workshops and interactive sessions with civil society luminaries.

In addition, children are employed on commission for collecting the daily deposits from sex workers for the Usha Cooperative Bank. Their regular visit to the houses of sex workers also helps identify and report instances of violence, illness, presence of trafficked children, or any activity that requires intervention. According to Bharati Dey, secretary of Durbar, this has contributed substantially to reducing violence, anti-social activity and child prostitution in its areas—a claim contested by other NGOs.

Srishti is a vocational training programme for sex workers, their children, and aged sex workers in various income-generating skills, such as beautician, carpentry and other crafts. A beauty parlour called Srishti has been opened by trained sex workers within Sonagachi, providing employment to many children of sex workers and training several more. Over 100 beauticians trained at Srishti work in parlours across the city. Products such as toys and decorative pieces created at the handicrafts training centre are regularly sold at local fairs and exhibitions, earning the makers, usually children, a commission. Two residential homes for children have been set up too.

Another success has been the football coaching for the sons of sex workers across the state and forming over a dozen teams. Two of the boys represented India in the under-19 tournament in Poland and have been recruited to the Army, a far cry from pimping or other exploitative options that most boys take up.

In addition, there is the Sathi Sangathan (made up of babus or permanent non-paying paramours of sex workers to educate them on treating the women well and the use of condoms), a customer care centre for clients, a research centre that helps collect data for various internal and external research programmes, an anti-trafficking unit, and an event management unit that organises craft stalls at fairs for products made by sex workers and their children as well as undertaking catering contracts at such dos.

All the wings are headed by sex workers or their children and are primarily managed by community members.

Dey claims the programme is a huge success and has not only empowered sex workers and their children, but has stopped the entry of minors through its self-regulatory board and prevented exploitation of sex workers in Sonagachi. This claim is refuted by many NGOs who point out that minors are still easily found in Sonagachi, as in all other red-light areas, and are frequently rescued by police.

The Sonagachi model, at least in theory, has been lauded the world over as a replicable model of community-led intervention to end exploitation of sex workers and empower them.

However, there are no independent data available to establish whether trafficking, child prostitution and violence have reduced. But the cooperative bank is a roaring success and has definitely improved the financial status of its members.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s directive to governments to set up rehabilitation programmes is unlikely to meet with success.

Several measures have been proposed by the DMSC, including a one-time payment of Rs.15 lakh to Rs.20 lakh for women wishing to get out of prostitution: a financial burden beyond most governments. The West Bengal government, however, has provided low-premium health insurance as well as ration cards, school admissions without father’s name and a sensitisation programme for the police.

The monetary compensation that some states provide has shown mixed results and in some instances, even spawned rackets. Many women who got the money, usually Rs.15,000 to Rs.25,000, have used it to start modest businesses like a roadside tea stall, eatery, paan and cigarette shop, tailoring unit, and so on. This is particularly true of women who were forced into prostitution, those not too successful, or too old to find clients. But the last group continued to maintain links with pimps and madams, helping trap young girls for a commission.

Andhra Pradesh, for instance, provides Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 as soon as a girl or woman is rescued, to help her start afresh. There are complaints that in many instances the girls never received the money at the time of rescue. There are allegations of policemen, pimps, madams and even social workers collecting money on behalf of the girls and never giving it to them.

A study by an NGO called HELP along the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh shows a cyclical journey in trafficking. The police, madams and traffickers are in a mutually enriching relationship and have huge stakes in keeping the racket going. So the woman who takes the money and leaves is back within days: either voluntarily, or forced by her family, or brought back by her madam and trafficker.

In fact many sex workers allow their children and young family members to be rescued and collected the rehabilitation money. This cycle of rescue and return is repeated several times. Thus a well-intentioned government scheme ends up encouraging this trade in women and children.

Uma, who was first rescued at 15, took the money home. Her alcoholic father took it away and resold her. She was set up by the trafficker in three other towns under different names and “rescued” from each place. The “trafficker” and she shared the dole. So apart from prostitution, the staged rescues too became a source of income and increased, instead of reducing, prostitution.

Sukanya from Machilipatnam was rescued in a police raid about five years ago when she was just 15. She had been sold into prostitution at 13.  The government gave her Rs 15,000 and an NGO a sewing machine. A while later, in a raid in another town the cops found Sukanya back in prostitution under a new name: Mythili.

Given the nature of the profession, no trafficker is ever convicted. Every arrested trafficker or madam has been acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. Thus, trafficking flourishes unhindered. In a thriving trade, the perpetrators can easily afford to bribe their way out of trouble.

According to Indirani Sinha, director of Sanlaap, an NGO for the rescue and rehabilitation of women in West Bengal’s red-light areas, the exercise is unlikely to meet with success in the spirit intended. The economics are against it.

Few women in their peak years opt to leave the profession. In Kolkata, the average earnings of a mid-level sex worker between 15 and 40, range from Rs 1,000-Rs 5,000 every working day. Only women beyond the productive age—too old to find clients—are likely to opt out.  While government doles might help a more dignified retirement, it is unlikely to reduce trafficking or the entry of new women. In fact, former sex workers form a very active community of traffickers and are regular suppliers of girls to brothels. It would be impossible for the government to keep track of the activities of its beneficiaries and verify whether they have indeed left prostitution and related activities.

Since its coffers can provide only marginal aid, most women would be unwilling to leave for such small amounts, even if they do not actually like being in prostitution.

[R]evathy from Bangalore looks like any reasonably well-off middle-class housewife in her silk sari with two thick gold chains, diamond earrings and nose ring, four gold bangles, a ring on each hand, and jasmine in her hair. It is normal for middle-class women in the southern states (except Kerala) to wear such jewellery every day.

Revathy has rented an independent house for Rs.20,000 in the Adugodi area among other middle-class families too busy to pry. Her neighbours think her husband and she run some kind of business from home, which explains the large number of visitors during the day.

“I entertain six to eight clients while my three children are at school, making between Rs.3,000 and Rs.12,000 a day, depending on what I’m expected to do,” she says. “I’m not too fussy about the men I entertain as long as they pay what I want. I don’t work on weekends since my children are at home and relatives visit. I’ve been in this profession for more than 15 years. I’ve bought two flats and a plot of land where I’ll go after my children are settled. The flats fetch a decent rent.

“If the government provides compensation, I’ll take it. But I won’t stop my work; I’ll just move to another area under another name and continue. How will they keep track? One may have to pay policemen once in a way, but I can afford that. After all how much will the government give: some one-time alms of Rs.20,000 or Rs.30,000? I make that in half a week. Even young, highly educated women don’t earn as much as I do. Why would I leave it?”

This opinion is echoed by Dhanalakshmy in Anna Nagar, Chennai. “The right time to nudge us out with compensation would have been at the time we entered since we found the work repulsive and would have gladly left. My sister and I were brought in by my uncle who gave my father Rs.10,000 and an offer to find us work in his friend’s garment factory. We were kept in a house guarded by fierce bouncers till we succumbed to the pressure.

“Over the years we have overcome the disgust and learnt to bear with all sorts of clients. We now work on our own and earn a couple of lakhs every month. Our families are better off now; we have invested in property. In a few years, we will employ a couple of young girls who will earn better than us and retire one day. By that time the girls we employ will be planning like us. We certainly don’t think prostitution is a good thing, but we were forced into it at a very young age. If we leave now, we know no other skills to earn a living, are uneducated, too old to start a new phase, and too young to retire. In a few years we will have substantial savings.”

Dhanalakshmy and Revathy represent the thousands of women across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Pondicherry, Gujarat—in fact across most cities, particularly those that don’t have a clearly demarcated red-light area. They are a growing phenomenon even in these locations.

Thirty-year-old Bosudha of Kolkata works as a maid in six houses to take home a grand total of Rs.4,000 a month. She is up before 4 a.m., cooking for the family, packing tiffin for her two school-going children and mason husband, and filling water from the community tap 500 metres away. She leaves home by 5.30 a.m., catching the local train from Canning to reach the first house by 7.30 a.m.

From then on, it is a non-stop sequence of sweep-mop-wash-dust-cook, with brief breaks for tea and snacks in each of the houses. She also gets to carry back the leftovers from a couple of the houses to supplement dinner. She winds up by 5.30 p.m., joining other women as they leave for the railway station, catching a crowded train to reach home around 8 p.m. After a quick bath and washing clothes in the tap across the street, she is back to cooking for the family. The leftovers ease this task somewhat.

By the time the family finishes dinner, she has washed the dishes and is ready to call it a day. It is now almost midnight. Bosudha has a few hours of exhausted sleep before a cacophony of alarm clocks in her house and those of other women like her in the neighbourhood heralds the start of another back-breaking day.

“Why can’t governments give women like us free medical help and money to leave this job and look after our children and family?” demands Bosudha. “I’m tempted to enter prostitution or at least call myself a sex worker to get the benefits their unions are claiming. It is only the stigma that is preventing me and other women like me.

“We work almost 20 hours a day for less than a tenth of what sex workers earn, pay huge amounts for our children’s education, for healthcare, for transport. Instead of addressing only sex workers, governments should provide monetary relief and benefits to all women earning less than about Rs.5,000 or Rs.6,000 a month and their children.

“This will also prevent women and young girls from entering prostitution (voluntarily or forcibly) as a lucrative option of earning thousands after working just five or six hours. As for violence, harassment and abuse, most financially weak women suffer this. So perhaps empowerment of all economically weak women will raise the status of women and prevent trafficking. Besides, if girls and women keep going into prostitution to earn such high incomes, the reluctance of most women and even husbands, brothers and fathers will crumble in the face of such a lucrative option.”

This fear is echoed by 29-year-old Sushmita who earns Rs.6,000 as a salesgirl in a fashion showroom. A graduate, she fell in love and married Subhas, a driver who dropped out of school after class 8. Their two children go to a nearby school. Subhas earns about Rs.5,000 and his employer helps with the children’s fees and books, besides the occasional tip for long hours or extra errands.

However, Subhas dreams of buying his own taxi and pesters Sushmita to sell herself at least for a few years. “You can only make that much money when you’re still young. In five or six years you’ll be over the hill; who will pay for your body then? I’m your husband and I’m asking you, it’s not as if you are prostituting behind my back. Once we have our own cab, you can quit as I’ll be making enough money.” That is his pitch.

She asks: “What is the use of my education if I have to paint myself, stand on the footpath, and thrust my boobs out at every passing male hoping he’ll want to lay me, even if I find him repulsive? Once we get trapped in such high earning, by whatever means, we might be reluctant to leave, like other sex workers who also must have thought the same. The government should make women’s life easier by providing sops as long as they fulfil the economic criteria—that is, below a certain level of income.”

“Are only sex workers citizens? Aren’t we too citizens?” asks Yashodha who works as a sweeper in a school for Rs.3,000 a month. “Those women will take the money and continue in the business. What will the government do then?”

This is precisely the dilemma expressed by Karnataka government officials at the workshop organised by the Supreme Court panel. “While it might be possible to identify sex workers and hand over the money for rehabilitation, it will be impossible to keep track of whether they have actually left prostitution. Since there are no recognised red-light areas, some of the women may come with other women who are not sex workers and claim the benefits. And then remain in prostitution. It might be better to offer all economically and socially underprivileged women some moderate assistance in some livelihood programmes.”

The SC initiative seems to have been an impulsive reaction to a tragic event. Although well-intended, it threatens to unleash a new set of problems to replace those already entrenched. Despite the SC’s attempt to help women who wish to leave prostitution, the number is on the rise. And existing government schemes meant to help them have become new weapons of exploitation.