Produced, Filmed By: Urmi Bhattacheryya
Edited By: Prashant Chauhan
“18,” she hurriedly responds to my question. Her even younger-looking peer, perched on the same soiled bedsheet as her, nods furtively, and she announces, a little more confidently now, “19”.
Jaya* doesn’t look 18 or 19. However, I’ve just asked her a fundamental question so as to untangle and get to the beginning of her dubious tale – how old she was when she started standing on the highway outside her house, without any visible marker of her new profession, but with a confidence that caught the attention of trucks, cars, buses, lonely passersby on Neemuch-Ratlam-Mandsaur Highway.
I meet her cousin and her inside a room almost on the highway. She tells me this is a dera. Bacchada settlements aren’t called villages, they say. They’re called deras – a loose cluster of homes that seem to exist only to cater to customers who knock on the door – who’ve been knocking for as long as they can remember.
I’m accompanied by Sangeeta Singh, project head at Udaan – an NGO based out of Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur comprising women of the Dalit community – mostly Bacchadas – who are/were sex workers and manual scavengers. Several men also help out, Sangeeta tells me.
Who Are Bacchadas?
They’re a Dalit community classified as Scheduled Caste, living in India’s heartland state of Madhya Pradesh and they have a few unique characteristics: there are more women than men. Most women turn to sex work before they even turn 18. And most of them do not consider it a crime – believing that sex work has been passed down in their community, generation after generation...
It is there characteristics that first drew me to the story – and to Neemuch, Mandsaur and Ratlam. As I walked across the highway, stopping at deras (small clusters of Bacchada settlements where most young girls wait to hear from customers before striding to the middle of the highway to be ‘picked up’), I realised the story runs deeper and has many insidious layers that I had previously imagined.
For instance, there’s little secrecy regarding women who joined the profession under 18 and were underage.
A 2017 petition filed by Akash Chouhan, a man from the same community, says the number of underage Bacchada girls who enter the profession annually is about 1,500.
Wasn’t it only two years ago that the Centre brought into effect a law that enhanced the jail term for the rape of a minor girl below the age of 16? And wouldn’t the often-wilful pushing of a minor daughter into the trade earn the Bacchada family a jail term too? On the highway to caste-based prostitution, however, things are far too normalised, far too internalised, far too given and far too forgiven. Nobody’s watching. Nobody’s standing in the way.
But does law reach the countless charpoys lined up against the Neemuch Highway?
Young occupants are just waiting for a customer to alight from a car, a truck, a moving vehicle.
And lest you forget the rampant sexual abuse that many of these sex workers face (several told me they could do little else at the time but save their lives and make a run for it), here are their raw, gritty, unfiltered accounts, recounted to me in first person and on the condition of anonymity.