“I have been in Sonagachi for 25 years. I rent this room for 114 Rupees a month. This is my home.”
Champa Das has invited me into her home. Champa Das has been a sex worker all her adult life.
Sonagachi is one of Calcutta’s largest red light districts – narrow alleys, lined with small ‘apartments’ and corner stores form a confusing and nightmarish maze. The buildings lean into the street, the roads are crowded, it’s hot. The city seems to want to eat itself. Everyone in our small group is tense. Champa Das’ decision to grant me access to her life has not been taken easily. Sonagachi is one of the very few places in India where women have a higher street profile than men. That’s because most of them are prostitutes. 9000 women, many of them trafficked into the country from Bangladesh or Nepal, work in Sonagachi. 60.000 more sex workers area active across Calcutta.
In overcrowded India things don’t come in small measures. Two and a half million women and children (around 500.000 prostitutes in India are under 16) are working in the country’s sex industry. More than 5 million people are already HIV positive. Governments, both local and national, do little to tackle the increasing risk of a large-scale AIDS epidemic.
Large red light areas like Sonagachi are at the center of a problem that may soon spiral out of control and affect millions of people in Bengal and the neighboring state of Bihar. Sex workers are socially shunned and prostitution is illegal, which makes the women in Sonagachi extremely susceptible to extortion, blackmail, rape or murder by local gangsters, pimps and the police. Along with the government, the media chooses to ignore the enormous scale of the industry.
Champa Das lives in a tiny, 2 by 7 meter corridor-like room. The room is divided into three partitions. The second partition has a real bed and a TV. We sit under the TV. The wall is painted an ugly green. Young men pop their heads through a hole in the opposite wall at regular intervals. There’s no privacy.
Champa Das points to an adjoining cubicle behind her, “I rent that room for 8 Rupees a day, to make some extra money.”
Sex in Sonagachi can be had for as little as 10 Rupees. Champa Das points to her front door. There, another bunk has been set up to make another potential 8 Rupees a day. There is little room for personal belongings. Champa Das is a devout Hindu and small statues of Ganesh line the walls.
“I have to pay extra for the TV.”
Suparna Tat is sitting next to me on the bed. Champa Das sits on the narrow bit of floor next to the bed. Suparna Tat has been a field worker and program coordinator for The Durbar Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) for a year. She has a degree in anthropology. Suparna Tat is conducting an ‘exposure visit’. I am being ‘exposed’ to Sonagachi.
The DMSC, also called Durbar, an organization representing sex workers in India and across the world, was founded in 1992 and receives large donations from the national government and foreign donors to fund AIDS prevention programs. The aim of the organization is to promote reliance, respect and recognition amongst sex workers.
Suparna Tat is a good translator. She sits cross-legged, playing with her mobile phone while talking to Champa Das. In the light of the neon overhead our host’s scars become clearly visible. Champa Das’ arms are lined with old cuts and her face is battered. Suparna Tat has never been a sex worker.
Champa Das remarks, “The lady who owns this building rents out ten rooms like mine. Each woman in each room sublets part of the room to another sex worker. These flyers come for the day, from another part of town. In the evening they go home, some to their families.”
Champa Das curses her landlady.
Suparna Tat does not translate. “It was a dirty word, I cannot translate it.” She laughs uncertainly. “I cannot even say it.”
Half eaten plates of food are stacked on the floor next to unwashed cooking pots. Outside, the alleys team with rats and shady young toughs. Women lean into shadowy doorways, tucking in their saris, scanning the passers-by. Sonagachi is a hard place, forgotten by day, remembered by night by India, by Calcutta, by thousands and thousands of men who come to the area, pay a quarter Dollar for sex and return to their lives, as if nothing had happened. But things are happening. India is top of the global list of quickly rising AIDS statistics.
French writer and activist Dominique LaPierre has been running aid projects in Calcutta for 20 years. The best-selling author of ‘The City Of Joy’ is clearly worried about the sex industry in India.
“We are facing big challenges. Leprosy, and more recently, AIDS, has begun to seep into all levels of Indian society. The sex trade in Mumbai and to an extent in Calcutta is flourishing. These cities have large populations of itinerant workers who all take the diseases they have been infected with back to their villages and families. AIDS is like a time bomb.”
Calcutta is a city crowded with millions of men from the hinterlands of Bihar and West Bengal. Builders, construction workers, rickshaw pullers, even taxi drivers in Calcutta are mostly from out of town.
The DMSC, which claims to have 60.0000 members, is running a ‘comprehensive health development program centering HIV/AIDS’. That’s what the pamphlet reads that Debashish Chowdury, the organisation’s monitoring officer, presses into my hand as we return to the Union’s offices.
Champa Das has no worries about condoms. “Thanks to the DMSC, we get condoms very cheap, 5 condoms for 2 Rupees. But the clients, at least three quarters of them, won’t use them.”
Komala Das and Rahma Sahni, Champa Das’ neighbors, agree. “ If we force them to use the condom, they will just go next door. There are so many women working here, and in the end, everyone is prepared to work without protection for fear of losing trade.”
In 1999 the DMSC claimed that 90% of clients used condoms. These days the official figure is 65%. Sanjay, a middle-aged pimp who controls a small group of women in Sonagachi, laughs at the statistics, “That would be great. Unfortunately the scale of the trade makes things like this hard to enforce.” It’s hard to verify figures like this independently, but sex workers all over Calcutta tell a different story.
Champa Das receives very little information. “Some sex workers are tested for HIV. If they are positive, they are not told of the results. They live with the disease, not knowing they are infected, because the DMSC is worried that HIV positive women will be ostracized.”
Given the conservatism, the public double standards and secrecy surrounding AIDS/HIV, the epidemic is likely to get much worse. According to DMSC, HIV positive cases in Sonagachi have risen from just 1% in 1992 to 9% today. In Mumbai (formerly Bombay), figures run as high as 70%.
It’s been a long journey to Champa Das. Not only is Sonagachi a prison no one can leave; it is also difficult to get in. The risk to go and talk to sex workers without outside help is considerable. Armed youths make direct contact with women living in the area difficult. The alternative to get access is an organization like Durbar. To see Champa Das involves getting permission to work in Sonagachi by the DMSC in the organisation’s aircon office, then having it abruptly withdrawn by case-workers as soon as we hit the narrow alleys of Sonagachi.
Eventually I am told I am not allowed to talk to anyone other than women directly involved in the organisation’s projects. I have already experienced exactly the same strategy at the hands of another organization purporting to help women in Calcutta. Journalists are regularly invited by aid organizations working in the sex trade, then blocked to see anything but the organization’s own projects. Sonagachi, it transpires, is firmly in the hand of the DMSC.
On a small square, an argument develops amongst the case-workers. The entire community of Sonagachi has the opportunity to witness the stand-off.
Back in the office of the DMSC, money talks.
Debashish Chowdury is standing in front of me, his hand open, demanding 30$ cash from myself and the photographer, for the ‘exposure visit’ we have just experienced. Suparna Tat has bowed out of the picture and disappeared into the air-con part of the building. Today, the DMSC office is almost exclusively staffed by efficient looking young middle-class men like Debashish Chowdury. He apologises again, “I am sorry this document was not shown to you prior to your exposure visit and I must insist you pay.”
The pamphlet, entitled ‘Welcome to Sonagachi’ outlines the DMSC’s objectives (many) and achievements (barely tangible). The document is badly written and carries no contact information. No address, no phone or email contacts, nothing.
In the last paragraphs of the pamphlet, the DMSC states that ‘we have decided to request our esteemed visitors to support our program through token donation. To systematize the process, Durbar (umbrella of sex workers different organizations) decided to put charges on exposure visits.’…..‘The charges fixed for this exposure visit is Rs. 1,000.00 (Rupees One thousand only) per person.’….‘This charge will include only project briefing and visit to a near-by field for a half a day program. This will not include food and travel expenses.’….‘Cars may be rented from our Project for visiting far-off field visits.’
A 1000 Rupees would go a long way with Champa Das. So would the 50 Million Rupees that the UMSC, a subdivision of the DMSC has in the bank, for a rainy day, apparently. Debashish Chowdury shows me some recent press clippings his organization has received. Melinda Gates, the wife of the world’s richest man, has been to Sonagachi. She left 200 Million $US in India to fight AIDS. Will it help in the hand of people who promote a red light area like a zoo? Melinda Gates thinks that India’s pop stars and cricket players will change the nation’s perception on HIV.
Debashish Chowdury is getting agitated by my questions, “You are misunderstanding all this. You cannot make a statement about Sonagachi after only an hour in the field. Many of the women here choose to work in Sonagachi. DMSC is fighting for the legalisation of this work in order to give dignity and independence to India’s sexworkers.”
Indeed, the DMSC has been organizing festivals in Calcutta, where sex workers cook and dance for the local community. In the eyes of the average Indian, that’s a fun day out freak show.
Mahla Singh, one of the organisation’s founders, states, ”It is rarely acknowledged that for most sex workers, entering the sex industry is not a result of coercion or an act of desperation but a rational choice.”
I spoke to scores of sex workers in brothels across Calcutta. The only sex workers I met who’d made a rational choice of sorts where the high class girls in the city’s discos who charge up to 1000$ a night. It’s a long way from a posh Park Street night-spot to Sonagachi. The vast majority of sexworkers in India were sold into the business. The DMSC is cultivating the image of the ‘happy hooker’, a vapid hope raised with donors in order to attract large funds from abroad.
Indrani Sinha, director of Sanlaap, another organization purporting to help sex workers, disagrees with the DMSC’s philosophy. “Most women are coerced into this trade. I don’t think legalisation is the solution. We hear of women being trafficked into Calcutta’s red light districts every day. I wouldn’t even call prostitution work in this country.”
To celebrate its 12-year anniversary, the DMSC recently produced a fashion show. Debashish Chowdury is reluctant to show me the press clipping. After some heckling he hands me the Bengal-language reports. Sex workers turned into catwalk models for just one day. The clothes sold, the women went back to work. The monitoring officer has understood that it’s not a story a western audience might take to.
I refuse to pay. “With all due respect, I cannot pay this fee, which is squarely aimed at the media and trivializes the terrible circumstances out in the street. Prostitutes appear to have few rights in Calcutta, despite the best efforts of organizations like Durbar.”
Debashish Chowdury asks me to put my point of view in writing (I am doing so now), “The director is the child of a sex worker you know. WE don’t use the word prostitute. It’s derogatory. We believe sex workers should be allowed to work legally.”
He knows as well as I do that this is not going to happen anytime soon in a society where women have little independence and many are regularly abused, disadvantaged, starved and sold, beaten and killed by their male superiors, partners or family members. I am talking about ordinary women. Women like Champa Das are right at the bottom of a human pyramid so gigantic it almost defies definition. In other red light areas around the city, like Kalighat, thousands of young Nepali and Bengali girls work out of small hovels. In train stations all over Calcutta, in alleys and in the streets, more than a hundred thousand children eke out a living, sliding in and out of sex abuse situations every day.
Debashish Chowdury and I have come to an impasse, when our argument is helped along by a young voice behind me. “Mr. Chowdury is right of course. We need to give the women respectability. Only then can they be independent. You must not misrepresent this area as a place of misery.”
Gazi Nazrul Islam Faisal is project manager of a Marie Stopes HIV Prevention Project in Bangladesh. Gazi Nazrul Islam Faisal is on a fact-finding mission and does not have to pay for ‘exposure visits’. Gazi Nazrul Islam Faisal is a man. So are his two colleagues who have come over from Bangladesh. Except for photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, all present in the room are men. We are talking about what women, who have no power over their bodies and lives, who are not free by any definition of the word, want. Debashish Chowdury wants my money. I want to go back to Champa Das and hear something real. My fixer tells me a gang of men has been following us and it is time to get into a taxi and leave the area.
“We have problems with landlords, the police and local goondas (gangsters). We try to help each other and it’s really tough. But we only go to the NGO as a last resort.”
As I leave Champa Das, she smiles in the door to her room, “Tell people about what it is like to live here, what you saw and what you heard.”
The fight for the women of Sonagachi continues. So does the trade of new girls to the area. Despite periodic denials by the DMSC, it’s a thriving business. No one has yet suggested to go after the clients, the pimps or the police. Perhaps in ten years time, the women of Sonagachi will have wrested control from the male-dominated society whose iron grip they feel every time they turn a trick. Perhaps, in a better future, the sex workers will be controlled by organizations like the DMSC and happy young Indian women will flock into the world’s oldest profession with new-found rights and enthusiasm. Perhaps. In the meantime, if I need to hire a car, I know where to go. Do they provide female drivers?
Published in the Irish Independent.
I am receiving a lot of comments for this story. Some of them can be read below. Some readers unfortunately send very abusive emails, generally aiming their torrents of anger at the sex workers. Also, many readers comment only to brag about their sexual escapades in India or inquire about how to access the sex trade in Kolkata. Most of these mails are deleted.
But due to the continuing flood of these disturbing confessions, I have now decided to run just one chilling comment from a Sonagachi client on this page. There is nothing typically Indian about this missive – abusive, criminal sexual predators exist all over the world. This comment illustrates the terrible abuse sex workers face.
I had a pleasent exprience of sex in sonagachi with anupriya she has been associated in this line at the age of 8years when her mother forced her to work as a prostitute. her ugly face was in tolerable but for in her lust i bang her for more than one hours at the rate of 125 as per the rate it would be only 25 rupees,but her crying face compailed me to give her 100 rupees. her house would not be more than 3meters per side still she managed to survive in that room.
i met with her mother and enquired about her life when she told me that she had been in sonagachi since 1983.she was verry helpless and recless when she was forced to be fucked by 3 person at a time. may she get more and more customers in future. call her in XXXXXXXXX (phone number removed).
For those readers who continue to contribute constructive messages and criticism, the comments remain open .
218 thoughts on “Welcome to Sonagachi – Calcutta’s largest brothel area is thriving”
Even Shri Rajiv Dixit Ji had tried to eradicate Prostitution,Unemployment,Corruption,etc from our Country India.But he was poisoned to death just because he wished to make our country once again more healthy,wealthy,prosperous,advanced in respect of Science & Technology etc as it was before foreign countries came to loot India.Please must listen to his Lecture given by him while he travelled all over India when he was alive.
the root cause is poverty. As the writer rightly said. To understand it better consider fiscal human pyramid.
The people on the top of this pyramid have the best ways of making money. those who keep failing keep sliding down the pyramid and towards worst kind of professions.
The reality is that everyone , as a mandatory dictat, has to operate something to make a living… else perish. this could be an option for women …just before the perish option.
I have seen more of men in worse condition than women…
This is rong plz dont go anyone for fucking
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Never call that name on them!
There are the the part of this crazy fucking society who have suffered! Suffered a lot of pain that this freakin dumbass higher people can never think of!
I m sure you guys can’t survive a day with that mental breakdown!
This society, Its all about money! That shit makes people cautious!! And this money makes them live like this!
They are theoretically living literally dead!
God you dipped good people in sick society!
#good article brother
I pledge everyday, not just me, but every Indian takes an oath that every woman on Indian land be my sister. We pledge that we’ll protect our country & its people from all evil, both foreign & domestic.
We are forcing our women into prostitution or we create such situations that they have no other choice rather than being a sex worker
My point of view, I won’t allow women from my family to do such things, no matter wat. Prostituition must be wholly eradicated in India. Sex workers will be employed by our govt, and they should be treated with all rights.
If there’s anyone who really needs a red-light area, he & his family will be bought here to service those who feel the same as he does.
hey, I am from Delhi, as I was just surfing for Sonagachi as its a famous red light district, your article gave me an insight of the reality behind this area. I very much appreciate your stand in creating awareness for the inhumane acts being performed in such areas especally in India and we, the public of India need to enlighten ourselves on this emerging issue.
Thanks for sharing this article, and do notify me if u post any such articles anywhere over the web
Yes, nothing changes. I was just talking about the Snowden film Citizenfour, which won an Oscar recently. The film describes events that shook the world two years ago – mass surveillance by the state, syphoning up of personal information etc. The most remarkable thing about the Oscar win is thta nothing, but absolutely nothing has changed since then, none of the intrusive laws have been rolled back.
We all have access to information these days. We can publicize any injustice or atrocity to a wide audience and the world (and politics) keeps turning as if we are living in total darkness, our heads stuck in gadgets with flushing lights all day long. I am guessing Sonagachi will still be around in 20 years time, pretty much unchanged from the way it is today.
This was one of the very minority of articles which tries to show some REAL life, and definitely not what people would want to see. Sadly, in all these years nothing much has changed. Although new ways of corruption had opened up. My friend (former colleague, actually) was blocked from a well-deserved promotion because he wasn’t being able to supply good-quality escorts for the boss. Eventually a new lady got it. I wouldn’t want to imagine why. Sonagachi@work for ya.
How, my dear glossy-eyed dreaming-of-heaven-on-earth brothers and sisters, how do you even consider ‘changing the situation’ when this world is endlessly generating opportunities to take advantage of other people? That’s the definition of humanity right there, because only humans do this to fellow humans. Is it really a surprise that NGOs would actually try to profit, nay, do profit from the very beings they ‘protect’?
Face it. India is a overpopulated, undereducated huge market. And sex is the best (and cheapest) product up for sell. Who the fuck are you to spin the world the other way?
For those who want to legalize prostitution – are you sure you’re just saying it purely out of your heart’s goodness or are you just trying to find a safer brothel? I wouldn’t trust a man about sex. Nature had not built humans that way.
If there’s anything a government (with big balls) can do is to establish a nationalized chain of brothels cum safe-havens right next to redlight districts. A government who did that would forever etch their names in gold letters in history of mankind. Unfortunately, in the next few months all members of that government will be assassinated and the brothel-shop cum safe-havens burned. With girls inside. That’s humanity 101.
What’s my point? If you can’t do anything, shut the fuck up.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
My name is Gopal and I recently moved back to India after staying in US for a long time. I am starting an orphanage in Hyderabad area. I am thinking about hiring few of these unfortunate women as cooks and maids in the orphanage, yes they can bring their kids along with them. So if you know any of these unfortunate women, please connect them to me.
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
There is no way u can stop them.. Here in our country even the graduates find it hard to survived in this competetive world. Even the well educated ..n well protected family leaves under threat. We cant even come above our old reforms to marriage in same cast n religion. India is still a long way to go. Only thing we can do is to stop more Innocent grls from falling into such traps by promoting the alternate option to save themselves from such tragic situations. We cant promise anything good for those who r already into that profession bt atlst we can ensure no more will face it. And save those who r born in brothels.
I know this article is old but I just wanted to say what a good job you did of reporting. I have only recently heard of Sonagachi and and what goes on but from my research it looks as though we are not talking about an issue of prostitution, but the issue of trafficking, slavery and rape. Reading the stories of some of these young girls is heart breaking and some of the comments here make me feel sick to my stomach – especially the one you posted at the end of this article. It is shocking that there is still next to nothing being done to stop so many young girls being forced into these disgusting conditions and the horrible lifestyle. Just to be clear, i have nothing against sex work – I live in Australia where it is legal and sex workers actually have rights and make the informed decisions to enter the industry, but I am STRONGLY against what goes on in Sonagachi which as I stated earlier is not prostitution, but sex trafficing and rape. Any ‘customer’ of these victims should be disgusted with themselves.
Hi Well Wisher, reckon you had it coming. 50000 Roupies seems an appropriate amount to take off you for wanting to visit Sonagachi. Presumably you weren’t there to eat a thali.
LAST FORTNIGHT I WAS ROBBED BY EIGHT PROSTITUTES IN SONAGACHI AT NOON..ONE AUNTY TOOK ME TO A ROOM ASKING ME TO DONATE RS 10 AS CHARHAWA..THERE SEVEN MORE GIRLS CAME IN THE SMALL ROOM..BOLTED THE DOOR AND CHECKED ALL MY BELONGINGS..TOOK AWAY RS 50000 CASH FROM ME FORCIBLY..IS THIS IS WHAT SONAGACHI IS ALL ABOUT..I THOUGHT I MUST WARN ALL MEN WANTING TO VISIT THERE..PLEASE BE VERY CAREFUL AND DONT CARRY TOO MUCH STUFF OR CASH..
its so sad that women are living in such condition. every woman wants to have a family, a husband, children and a loving society. as i was reading the comments was shocked some people saying that its not wrong as men have instinct for sex. SHAME SHAME ON ALL SUCH MEN. ITS BECAUSE OF DIRTY MEN LIKE YOU THAT SONAGACHI AND SUCH OTHER PLACES BREATHE ON EARTH. WOMEN ARE FORCED BECAUSE OF LOW MEN LIKE YOU. NOT THESE POOR WOMEN BUT SUCH SHAMEFUL MEN NEED TO BE OSTRACIZED. SORRY I DONT EVEN WANT TO CALL SUCH PEOPLE AS MEN BECAUSE REAL MEN RESPECT WOMEN, NOT EVEN THEY CAN BE CALLED ANIMALS SINCE THEY TOO HAVE A COD OF CONDUCT. THESE PEOPLE ARE JUST BEASTS. GOD WILL PUNISH THEM ALL AND NO MERCY WOULD BE SHOWN. MAY ALL YOU SHAMELESS STINKING BEASTS ROT IN HELL!!
This is indeed a sad and scary article. I believe there are limitations ( a lot indeed) that limits rehabilitation of sex workers. But I guess, all their children have to rehabilitated to different places far from the slums, given better education and slowly make all sorts of prostitution illegal with far more strict rules than the vague one we have now. I believe in places like Sonagachi & Kamathipura.. prostitution in these areas, I believe are passed on to their children by their own mothers who know no other means of livelihood than selling themselves.
I think the NGOs apart from providing promotion on STDs should also introduce the women there the outside world where people can live with dignity and hope which might kindle interest in women to rehabilitate and live a better life.
I wish I could be of any help..
Heal the World, Make it a better place..
I have read this article and read many more.l cannot how people can treat them in such a way.many of the girls are below18 .why the media is not taking any action inspire all the information is available to them…..
EVERYBODY HAS THE RIGHT TO LIVE HAPPY…….