In order to understand the depths and complexity of the police crackdown on sex workers in Budhwar Peth which has escalated between January to April 2019, Saheli Sangh, a sex workers’ rights organization working in Budhwar Peth since the past 20 years decided to put together a fact finding team along with Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM, a rural feminist organization working in two districts in Maharashtra since 1987) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL, founded by Jay Prakash Narayan, Justice V.M. Tarkunde and others in the 1970s). This endeavour was supported by National Network of Sex Workers (India) working in 11 states of India since 1997.
The fact finding team conducted visits from 20th to 22nd May 2019 and held individual and group meetings with sex workers in different parts of Budhwar Peth, as well as with police and other stakeholders in the area.
In the end of December 2018, the police started collecting documents of identity and address (including address of the native place) proofs and photographs from sex workers and created a list of those records. This record creation was not voluntary on part of the sex workers and they were threatened that if they failed to provide the said documents, they would either get arrested or would have to leave the area.
While police raids have been taking place in Budhwar Peth from time to time, from the first week of January 2019, the police started conducting Nakabandi in Budhwar Peth. All the roads leading to Budhwar Peth would be barricaded from ten in the night until about five in the morning, and entry and exit of all persons was prohibited. Sex workers were arbitrarily booked under Sections 110 and 117 of the Bombay Police Act. Sex workers reported that verbal and physical abuse which had escalated during this crackdown continue to remain so.
On January 16, 2019, a major combing operation was conducted by police in the area. During this operation, all the men – whether customers, passers-by/visitors, or residents in the area were held captive on the street. Many people trying to enter the Budhwar Peth area were verbally and physically assaulted by the police officers. They were then photographed and filmed, and the video was made viral on the internet. This has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the area, public humiliation of the customers and ostracisation of the sex workers community. Police also threatened the customers with consequences if they visited the area again. Needless to say, this has adversely affected livelihood of the sex workers.
The police also conducted several raids on the brothel houses in the name of rescuing minor or Bangladeshi sex workers, at which time adult Indian women sex workers were arbitrarily picked up and subsequently put in a rescue home in Pune. Since family members and blood relatives were required to come to Pune to secure their release, many sex workers who had not informed their families about their livelihood had to make involuntary disclosure. Several sex workers who have been unable or unwilling to contact family members continue to be lodged in the rescue homes inspite of neither being minors nor Bangladeshis.
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