On a busy weekday evening at Mumbai’s Kamathipura – home to over 12,000 sex workers – a middle-aged woman stood outside her home and awaited a client.
The lanes of Kamathipura have been home to her for over a decade.
On being asked where she has come from and why, pat came a reply in Bengali, “Murshidabad gyacho, jao, bujhbe keno eshechi? Khabo ki? (Have you been to Murshidabad? If you had been, you would have known why I am here. What do I eat?)"
Nearby, a biryani shop has on its menu fish curry, cholar dal (split Bengal gram cooked with coconut) and aloo posto (a side dish made with spiced potato cooked in chillies, turmeric and poppy seeds).
Gradually, food habits have changed in Kamathipura, as more and more Bengali-speaking women from West Bengal and Bangladesh get trafficked there.
This piece tackles the reasons behind this influx of women from Bangaldesh, the plight of the women in Kamathipura.
’Poverty Main Reason Behind Trafficking’
Rabindra Ghosh, a human rights activist in Bangladesh’s Dhaka, told The Quint, “Human trafficking from Bangladesh is at an all-time high. There are many Hindu girls who want to escape atrocities on them in their homes and run away for a better life. They fear they will be kidnapped for forced conversions and marriage. And then there are Muslim girls who are kidnapped and trafficked by touts who promise them a better life abroad.
He claimed that eventually most land up in brothels. Ghosh said, “This has been happening for around 15 years. Trafficking of women is one of Bangladesh’s biggest concerns, and the reason is poverty.”
Ghosh said that “touts” show big dreams to girls and young women in poverty-stricken villages -- dreams of good money while working as domestic helps in places such as Mumbai and Dubai.
“But that is almost never the case,” said Ghosh.
In fact, in November 2022, a top United Nations (UN) official asked Dhaka to step up its vigil across the borders to check what he claimed was alarming human trafficking, as per a report released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The Quint also spoke to Triveni Acharya, who runs Rescue Foundation that works with sex workers in Kamathipura. Acharya said, “The number of women coming from West Bengal and Bangladesh is unimaginable.”
Like Ghosh, Acharya too said that “poverty, which is so high in the hinterland, is the main reason.”
‘Spike in Arrival of Women Rohingya Refugees from Bangladesh’
Acharya also claimed that there’s a noticeable spike in the arrival of women refugees from Myanmar who lived in camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
As per a 2019 Reuters report, “sex industry was thriving in Chittagong’s Kutupalong, the biggest camp for Rohingyas in Bangaldesh." As per the news report, "Anti-trafficking groups fear that the human trafficking routes to southeast Asia through the Bay of Bengal, which became active around 2010, are now being used to smuggle increasingly desperate Rohingya refugees out of Bangladesh."
“Trafficking was present in the past and it is present today as well,” said Shamimul Huq Pavel, a government officer with the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), a government organisation created to deal with the Rohingya crisis.
Meanwhile, Acharya claimed that many Rohingya refugees, who were in Bangladesh, landed up in India, and eventually in Kamathipura.
“They all speak Bengali and their food habits are similar to girls and women from Bengal and Jharkhand. They once faced exploitation in Bangladesh and escaped from there. And now, they face another kind of exploitation in Kamathipura,” said Acharya.
‘Need to Ensure Girls, Women not Re-trafficked’
Early February, a teenage girl nearly collapsed inside the Nagpada police station near Kamathipura. This was not an unusual sight for the police personnel stationed at Nagpada. Sex workers from Kamathipura routinely visit the police station to lodge complaints against their clients.
The minor, only 15 years old, had not yet been initiated into sex work, said Sarfaraz Ali, a young activist working in Kamathipura.
“The girl was kept without food for four days. She lived in a village close to Jessore, a bustling city in Bangladesh, known for its factories and located 50 km away from India’s Petrapole border in West Bengal,” he said.
Ali, who has been working in Kamathipura for over a decade, claimed the child was drugged on her way to school in Jessore, put on a train from Kolkata to Mumbai.
Early this month, she was rescued by Ali who broke open her room in Kamathipura. Ali rushed the minor to a vehicle waiting outside the lane. There were two other minors in the room but they disappeared into thin air. He told The Quint, “They were probably picked up by the middle-men, the pimps.”
Maheshkumar N Thakur, a senior inspector of Nagpada police station, refused to comment on the incident.
“The real battle starts now. She will first go to a women's remand home. Then the process of sending her back to Bangladesh will begin,” said Sheikh.
But that’s not all. “We must ensure that she is not re-trafficked to an Indian client by another agent from Bangladesh,” he said.
As per a Reuters report, there are 20 million sex workers in India.
The History of Kamathipura
Dr Ishwar Gilada, who has treated sex workers for over four decades in Kamathipura, said that he is surprised at the increasing presence of Bengali women in Kamathipura.
“Why only Bengalis… I just can’t understand. Who is sending these girls here?” said Dr Gilada.
Dr Gilada heads Unison Medicare in Grant Road, Mumbai, and was the first person to raise alarm against AIDS in India in 1985. Dr Gilada was the first person who started encouraging sex workers in Kamathipura to insist that their clients use condoms.
Kamathipura was set up in the early 1800s. The area got its name from the kamathi community – contractors for whom the settlement was originally built. These people migrated to Mumbai from Hyderabad and were called Kamathis or workers, and the place where they lived was called Kamathipura or home of Kamathis.
What is the Kamathi Community?
Soon, everyone came in to stay, including the infamous Pathan gang, which ran money-lending businesses and gambling rackets, and was also involved in alleged contract killings.
The Pathan gang was run by Karim Lala who had migrated to Mumbai from Afghanistan. He had a solid grip on Kamathipura, and Ajay Devgn portrayed him in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest movie, Gangubai Kathiawadi.
Shopkeepers in Kamathipura remember the neighbourhood’s biggest raid by the police and an NGO a few years ago. Over 400 women were rescued, some 100 middle-men were arrested and the kingpin, popularly known as DB is now at the Arthur Road jail.
The June 2022 Supreme Court judgement was a historic one that recognised sex work as a profession and said that sex workers are entitled to dignity and equal protection under the law. The apex court said ‘voluntary’ sex work was not illegal. This has expanded the rights of sex workers by defining prostitution as a profession.
The judgement also ordered an end to police violence and pushed for health and labour protections which were introduced during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“But girls and women are still coming and filling rooms in Kamathipura, and they do not have any rights. Guaranteeing their hard-won rights is an ongoing battle,” said Dr Gilada.
Rampant Exploitation in Kamathipura
“The middle-men rule Kamathipura. They take 40-50 percent of the cash earned by the sex workers but does anyone care?” asked Aslam, who runs a laundry shop in one of the by-lanes of Kamathipura.
There are 15 such lanes, spread over 39 acres, where the women live in small rooms, share cooking space and toilets.
Aslam says no one is even keen to find out why supplies - for almost a decade - have been coming from Bengal and Bangladesh. Research is often one-sided to the point of being unreliable, he says, adding the Maharashtra government should have - by now - alerted the state governments in Bengal and Jharkhand and also Bangladesh about this unending stream of supplies.
“There is no data, only supply of women. They come here all the time. The numbers have dwindled but supplies have not stopped. Well-known and easily-contacted sex workers are rarely consulted to plug the supply points,” he adds.
The Quint spoke to multiple lawyers who said that they are "not aware" of any such development where the Maharashtra government has asked Bengal or Jharkhand governments, or for that matter, the Odisha government, to check the influx of women from these states. In the case of Bangladesh, the issue of human trafficking and smuggling have been routinely discussed in border-level talks between the two nations.
‘You Will Never Hear the True Story of a Sex Worker’
In Kamathipura, the sex workers aren’t allowed to roam outside unaccompanied or without their manager’s permission.
Some women were brought to Kamathipura by their husbands, some by their friends, and some by their maternal uncles.
Others land up – like the two sisters from Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal – just to escape studies and parental pressure to get married.
Their stories have not changed over the years.
Once the brothels of Kamathipura were organised state-wise but now Bengali is the widely spoken language.
The women often find it hard to complain to their managers about the work and the clients. If they do, the managers take away all the money they have earned.
Several researchers and filmmakers admit that it is difficult to investigate a brothel, even when accompanied by police personnel.
“The girls and women are clearly frightened and distressed and often say that they are in Kamathipura by choice. You will never hear the true story of a sex worker. She knows she will be alone once the researcher has gone. Then, she will have to face the brothel owner and the pimp. They will turn her life hell," said Santoshi Mishra, documentary filmmaker and director of Mumbai 400008, a film based on Kamathipura sex workers.