The narrow lanes and by lanes that constitute Nagpur’s ill known ‘red light area’ Ganga Jamuna are silent and lifeless even at 12 noon. Hameeda bai is sitting outside her tiny shop displaying colorful packets of chips, snacks, biscuits and stationary for children like note books, pens and pencils. There is not a customer in sight.
“This has been the condition for almost three weeks now. I used to have sales of Rs. 300/ to 400/ everyday. We are a family of 7 subsisting on this shop and live here only in a small rented place behind. We came here from Raipur area some years ago – there is no one to go back to there. If matters continue like this where will we all go, how will we survive?” Hameeda asks.
There is Ramesh who has a pan shop; he also sells condoms. The shop is closed, shutters down.
“If there are no customers, no business why should I open the shop? I have admitted my wife to hospital for cancer treatment just 5 days ago. They ask me to buy costly medicine and get it – but without any income how will I buy them? My wife’s life is in God’s hands now” he says in despair.
Meena runs a tea shop – even today it is doing some ‘business’ – the only place where there is sign of life. She is making tea in kettles – on a stove. ( And serving it to journalists like us and some other people who are gathering around).
“Police has been coming to my shop for years and drinking tea – without ever paying for it” she says. “And two days ago they threatened me, asked me to close my tea shop and even took away my cylinder. They said they will charge me under the Essential Commodities Act, I don’t know under what crime…but I don’t care anymore. We are used to living hand to mouth. If necessary we will starve for some days” she says matter of factly. But after we have had our tea – which we ordered hoping to do some business and ‘help her out’ she refuses any payment firmly.
“You have come to help these women. Please do all you can…” she requests us.
There is a sudden commotion at the other end of the lane. Two policemen, constables probably, emerge from a inside a house pushing out a young man. They are wielding lathis and they lash the man in our presence. They run after him, hitting him till he runs away.
“Did you see that?” Ask a group of 5-6 women gathered in front of the house. “They beat us like that too even if we venture to go to the market to buy vegetables or anything for our children. It’s not just women police, even men hit us with their lathis and give us bad ‘gaalis'”.
“Till last month, they were our main exploiters. Each of these men had a favourite woman… a ‘rakhel’. They use us extort money from us and then abuse us too. If you do a DNA test, more than half the children you see around will be ‘b——-s’ of these very policemen.” Says an elderly woman in disgust.
You do see a lot of children – many more than I had expected to see. Of all ages , boys as well as girls. And surprisingly you see a lot of men too, many of them quite young. I see a man in his thirties carrying a little baby.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” I ask.
“I was born here and have lived here all my life – since I was also a baby like this” he says. He also does some petty business in the same area. His wife is a ‘normal home staying woman’ he says. Whose offspring he is, one can guess. No need to ask.
Not 50, not 70 or 80, I learn that Ganga Jamuna is almost 150 years old according to some old residents. From the complexion and the language of the women you realize most of them are not local.
“Yes, most of these women are from far off states like U,P, M.P., Karnataka, Chattisgarh and Orrissa. “says Hemlata Kolhe who is with the Red Cross Society and has lived and worked here for many years. Surprisingly quite a few of them are from Gwalior. They form the ‘Gwalior Gharana’ where traditionally women go into this ‘business’ I am told.
“When we set up the Red Cross dispensary here to fight AIDS, V.D., T.B. and other diseases these women are prone to, many women were HIV infected. All of them died. Since we have begun creating awareness about AIDS and teaching them protection they are more careful. Now the incidence of AIDS has come down quite a bit. Among the 1400 or so ‘Sex workers’ who live here, about 95 are HIV positive. Many of them have TB as well. TB and AIDS are like brothers – you have one, you are sure to contract the other”.
Hemlata tries to teach me a lot of jargon (abbreviations) used in her line of work.
TI is target Intervention.
KP is key population.
FSW is female Sex worker.
MSM is Male sex (with) male.
Then there are also non brothel sex workers, rural sex workers, migrant labour who are the susceptible group etc. etc.
And proof that State Governments have knowledge of what goes on here and has gone on for a long time is the presence of Govt. posted officers too who work with Red Cross and other NGOs to check AIDS among this population. There is government run Society called Maharashtra State Aids Socy and Amit Tembhurne is an officer with them.
He agrees with Hemlata that if the population of sex workers concentrated here is disturbed they will disperse throughout the city, will get disorganized and will spread AIDS and VD else where . In places where organizations like thei’s can’t monitor their check ups, counsel them and treat them.
“HIV affected women need check ups every six months. They need to renew their medicines and we monitor them to see if any of them is developing AIDS. Also TB patients need consistent treatment for 2 – 3 years. If they discontinue it in middle, they get infected by a more drug resistant bacteria and then it is always fatal”. Hemlata informs me.
Hemlata and her team are quite the Activists and totally devoted to the cause of these women , For Hemlata specially they are like her wards, her children almost. (Though she looks surprisingly young and spritely. Also very spirited). Apart from medical treatment and counseling, she tries to be their lawyer, their spokesperson and their guardian too.
After the first police raid around the 15th of last month she held a meeting on the 19th. She sought advise from Senior Bureaucrats, retired IAS officers and then took appointment with the Jt. Commissioner of police. She has been following it with DCP Abhinash Kumar too. She visits each and every woman who has been injured in police ‘action’ – often she is the one who takes them to the hospital and then goes to visit them at home too.
She is ever ready to help anyone from the media, but wary about sharing anything with any politician or such.
“Who can say who will turn against them if it suits them?” She asks.
“During elections all of them come to canvass here and ask for votes. This is a good ‘vote bank’ for all parties since altogether about 2000 + voters live here.”
“Another time Society and local leaders remember us is around any Puja time – Ganpati puja, Durga puja everything.” They tell me.
“Tab kam se kam Rs. 1000/ ka reciept phad ke jante hai” ( They take at least Rs. 1000/ from us ).
“Now where are they? Why don’t they come and help us out? We haven’t had a square meal in so many days” Meera laments.
Yes – all their names are such. There are lots of Meeras, Radhas, Sitas,Durgas and such names.
But their Gods have deserted them – or have never been with them in the first place.
When asked to speak in front of Jambuwantrao Dhote, some comrades and some NCP workers Radha says simply
“We were not children of well to do or even well meaning parents. Otherwise why would we be here?”
Another says ” punish us banish us, but spare our children, Let them go to school. My ten year old son was thrown out of the local school yesterday because I could not pay Rs. 600/ for his exam fee. They say not to bring him back till I don’ t pay. With no business happening, how do I bring the money” says Vimla.
The final word belongs to Sita.
“If the politicians and police find us such a blemish on society why don’t they marry us and take us home?” She asks.
“Forget us. Are they even willing to marry our innocent daughters?”