Chaitanya Lakkimsetti presenting at the conversations on social reproduction seminar July 7, 2020

As part of our Conversations on Social Reproduction Seminar, we had Prof. Chaitanya Lakkimsetti present on her recent book, Legalizing Sex: Sexual Minorities, AIDS, and Citizenship in India, with comments from Dr. Shakthi Nataraj. Here we share the recording of the seminar, along with Shakthi’s notes on the book.

Shakthi’s comments:

The turbulent struggle for queer and sex worker rights in India over the past few decades has provoked activists and scholars to propose different explanations for the contradictory positions taken by the state. Scholars of queer politics in India for example have long highlighted the seeming contradiction between the NALSA judgment of 2014 and the vacillation of the state regarding Section 377 between 2013 and 2019, as well as the contradictions between the spirit of the NALSA judgment and the carceral and punitive Transgender Rights Bill. Lakkimsetti’s book offers an exceptionally nuanced and careful analysis of these activist and legal battles. She analyses the complex lives and afterlives that transnational rights discourses come to have in postcolonial India and the specific relationship between the state and marginalized subjects. Lakkimsetti rejects the instrumentalist understanding of the way marginalized communities engage with the state, and also rejects queer/feminist dismissals of biopolitical projects as simply a form of liberal governance that produces docile and compliant bodies. Lakkimsetti argues that these paradoxes are not resolved, rather they provide the tension that fuels the process of legal change. The collision and tension between the juridical power of the state and the biopolitical projects of the state produces generative and creative gaps where new political subjectivities emerge.

While activists and scholars have for many years acknowledged the central role of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and organizing in the early emergence of queer and sex worker rights in India, they have had polarized views on this. On the one hand, HIV/AIDS movements are seen as a site of pure governmentality that has stymied political mobilisation and radicalism, on the other hand there is a celebratory narrative of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Lakkimsetti offers a complicated analysis that evades these two polarized viewpoints. Instead, through ethnographic fieldwork, she traces how marginalized groups moved from being considered simply vectors of the disease to being seen as active partners capable of negotiating new forms of life and livability. She traces in careful detail the journeys of specific legal journeys around 377, trafficking, the ITPA and NALSA, combining it with ethnographic vignettes gathered from her fieldwork with activists and CBO members across the country, to show how interlocutors are multiply positioned as criminals, pressure groups, rights-bearers, capitalist consumers, welfare beneficiaries, labourers, and partners.

Lakkimsetti’s book is a valuable addition to several fields of scholarship. Firstly, it updates debates in the anthropology of queer politics. A key thread of debate in queer anthropology in the 1990s was about how the globalisation of terms such as “LGBT” and “gay” has different trajectories in postcolonial countries. At the time, anthropologists described the vernacular idioms of sexuality, desire, and gender that produced complex hybrid identities and subjectivities. Phenomenological questions of embodiment and subjectivity were central to this thread of anthropological analysis. Lakkimsetti’s book is part of a trend that is not keen on theorizing identity-as-desire so much as vernacular forms of activism, politics and ethics. Her work is also a much-needed corrective to a somewhat problematic trend within anthropology at the moment, where critical postmodern approaches are sometimes weaponized to discredit identity-based politics and dismiss it as a liberal farce, at the very moment that minoritized groups oppressed on the basis of caste and race are fighting for greater rights within universities.

Here are some of the questions I had for Chaitanya:

  • You make the point about how “life” and “livability” are being negotiated and new “life-affirming” projects are being introduced and transformed by LGBTKQI and sex worker communities, changing them from simply subjects of a “bare-lofe” sort of top-down state project (such as that conceptualized by Agamben) into something more diffuse and capillary. Yet, the idea of the “livable” in both biopolitical and juridical terms remains a secular one. Yet the horizons of the “livable”, certainly for many of the communities under consideration here, move considerably beyond the juridical and the biopolitical. For example, in the case of sami pottais and thirunangais studied for eg by Ani Vasudevan, the relationship with the Goddess is an important mediator of politics and how, for example, they should handle a confrontation with police. Lucinda Ramberg and Anandhi have likewise shown how for dalit communities where goddess dedication is a value for some and not others, and there might be non-secular modes of existing in the world which are unintelligible under the sign of progress. In the case of orgs you mention, the place of the jamat is an interesting one, because while activists do critique the criminalization of the TG jamat system, nevertheless  human rights activists have considerable ambivalence and division around the institution of the jamath, veering between seeing it as a traditional progressive institution and as a archaic feudal remnant. This is part of a deeper tension between rights discourse and citizenship projects on the one hand, and ideas of kinship, feudal caste ties and the like (Lawrence Cohen has written about this). In the case of lesbian women for eg, the case I was involved in with Sangama. Even as part of the Pehchan project, there were DIVA grants for “educating” jamath leaders and making them modern. Tradition is also a meta-thing that is claimed, for example in the NALSA judgment. How is the “liveable” mediated by vocabularies of honour, auspiciousness, love, duty, and so forth, not only empowerment and rights? What did you encounter as the tensions here, between people who feel inadequately identified with these activist projects and who might have varied other ways, marked “non-modern” of living in the world? What are the horizons of ethical action and being which exceed either the juridical and biological personhood which you emphasize?
  • Where are the fractures and regional variations in the movement, in dialogue with various vernacular movements? For example, you certain prominent Mumbai-based hijra activists, who many in Tamil Nadu’s thirunangai movement see as an epitome of the hegemony of Mumbai hijra culture. The thirunangai identity is asserted as a contrast, drawing a different genealogy to a progressive Dravidian movement tradition, anti-religious anti-caste struggles, and secular identity allied to Tamil politics and feeding into a longer-standing way that Tamil Nadu distinguishes itself from other parts of the country. How are the politics of authenticity of gender connected to other ethical axes, in the lives of your informants?
  • What are various bodies of historical scholarship you are drawing upon? In the case of vectors of disease, and criminality your interlocutors in the book seem to be refashioning much older discourses as well, and as desiring subjects as well— whether in Kamala’s emphasis on bodily desires, or also Akkai’s on sex— longstanding discourses of the habitual sodomite and so forth. Kinship and family structures are a mode of resource allocation yes, but histories there as well. For eg. when hijra communities must battle allegations of “kidnapping” they are simultaneously combating new anti-trafficking kinds of regimes and new forms of heteronormative family hegemony, but also revisiting 18th century battles over “criminal” forms of tribe and kinship, contrasting it to “modern” (conjugal/consanguineal) forms. Indrani Chatterjee, Jessica Hinchy, and other have written about this. What is your engagement with this literature?
  • As you rightly point out, the idea that neoliberalism has simply led to a weakening of the welfare state and a shifting of burdens to communities is not borne out in the Indian context — unexpected outcomes. Prabha has made the point elsewhere that in India, neoliberalism has seen an expansion of the welfare functions of the state and not their shrinkage and there are also contexts where the state has legislated to give benefits and contingent forms of recognition to informal sector workers. You emphasize in your ethnographic work too, the informal sector and the unique characteristics of India as a postcolonial development state — the uneven enforcement, the off-the-record bargains, the contradictory stances of government agencies — the informal sector over 90% of the population, where do you see those intersectional struggles coming together or splitting apart with the sexual minority/SW movements? What are the links and tensions between informal sector work and the people you worked with?

Watch the video above to hear the discussion where Chaitanya addressed these questions and others from the audience as well.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Yale School of Public Health: stop scapegoating sex workers for the spread of COVID-19 in India!

In May 2020, a controversial study entitled ‘Modelling the Effect of Continued Closure of Red-Light Areas on COVID-19 Transmission in India’ was released without being peer-reviewed, and quickly went viral on Indian media outlets. It recommends that shutting down red-light areas in Mumbai, New Delhi, Nagpur, Kolkata, and Pune during and beyond the lockdown can reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases by 72% and deaths by 63%, and suggests keeping them closed indefinitely. For a critique of this study and its implications, please read this article by our Postdoctoral Research Associate, Dr. Shakthi Nataraj.  

To combat this harmful study, a group of activists and academics including Meena Seshu (SANGRAM), Aarthi Pai (SANGRAM), Siddharth Dube, Sundar Sundararaman, Mona Mishra, Tripti Tandon (Lawyer’s Collective), and Shyamala Nataraj (SIAAP), Prabha Kotiswaran and Shakthi Nataraj at the Laws of Social Reproduction Project, drafted the below statement of concern that was shared with the deans of Harvard Medical School and Yale School of Public Health, and the Vice-President for Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. The statement so far has over 140 signatories, including former health secretaries of the Government of India, leading policymakers and civil society leaders, sex worker collectives, and academics. The statement has been effective already, leading the dean of Yale School of Public Health to initiate an investigation into the study, and media outlets to publicly denounce the study in India. Scroll down to read our statement and sign our open letter. 


Dr. George Q. Daley, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Gretchen Brodnicki, JD, Dean for Faculty and Research Integrity, Harvard Medical School

Dr. Harry W. Orf, Senior Vice President for Research, Massachusetts General Hospital

Dr. Sten H. Vermund, Dean, Yale School of Public Health

Dr. Melinda Irwin, Associate Dean of Research, Yale Medical School

7 July 2020

Subject: Statement of concern regarding a study urging permanent closure of India’s red-light areas, published by researchers at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Yale School of Public Health

Dear Dr. Daley, Dr. Brodnicki, Dr. Orf, Dr. Vermund, and Dr. Irwin,

We write as a group of concerned decision-makers, academics, activists and representatives of sex worker collectives, regarding the recent study entitled ‘Modelling the Effect of Continued Closure of Red-Light Areas on COVID-19 Transmission in India’ (2020) authored by Sudhakar V. Nuti of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, along with Jeffrey P. Townsend, Alison P. Galvani, Abhishek Pandey, Pratha Sah, and Chad Wells at the Yale School of Public Health.

The study recommends that shutting down red-light areas in Mumbai, New Delhi, Nagpur, Kolkata, and Pune during and beyond the lockdown can reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases by 72% and deaths by 63%, and recommends keeping them closed indefinitely. We strongly denounce this study for its lack of rigorous methodology and transparency, misleading assumptions about sex work, and egregious disregard for the rights of the urban poor in India. We equally strongly denounce the sensationalistic and suspect way that the study has been publicly promoted in India, leading to dozens of news reports with headlines such as this one: “Keep red light areas closed post- coronavirus lockdown: Yale School of Medicine.” We demand that this paper be retracted until it has been peer-reviewed and made publicly available to other academics for critique.

The study has been released without being peer-reviewed, and the research methods have not been made transparent. The authors claim that 522 stakeholders in RLAs were interviewed in the past few months, with two rounds of research. Yet there is no detail on the ethics approval for the study, the informed consent and recruitment procedures, or the partner organizations that facilitated the research. It is not clear that informants were told about the objectives of the study or its possible risks for them, including the closure of RLAs and threats to their livelihood. Moreover, lockdown in India has been in place since 24th March 2020 and international research boards have mandated that all human subjects research be virtually conducted. In this case, the study was conducted illegally, making the findings inadmissible. Because of lack of transparency, the findings are also impossible for third parties to verify. Were the authors not aware of the risks posed by their own research?

The findings of the study, moreover, need to be triangulated with the findings of other research studies and consultations with civil society organisations before making policy recommendations. It is unethical and irresponsible for big-name institutions such as Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Yale School of Public Health to influence policy in the Global South without consulting sex worker collectives. This is particularly so in India, where sex workers have been leaders and equal partners in combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic for three decades. The authors ignored multiple requests from academics to make the findings available, as well as bypassed civil society organizations completely, sharing the key findings directly with media outlets and politicians even in the absence of peer review. This action smacks of prejudice, not science, ultimately scapegoating marginalized sex workers for the government’s failure to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Upon closer readings, it is also clear that the study suffers from enormous methodological shortcomings and flawed assumptions. The estimates of the number of sex workers in India are based on highly variable sources, and the secondary literature is outdated, citing studies from Pune in 1996 and Surat in 2003, reflecting little understanding of the current realities of sex work in India. Sex work, defined as the provision of sexual services, is provided in a range of locations in India, and only a very small percentage of it takes place in brothel settings. Most sex work takes place on highways, railways, construction sites, bus stations, farmlands, lodges, and residential homes, and sex workers frequently migrate between these settings. Caste-based sex work is also practiced in certain parts of India, where large sections of a village might practice sex work. Major red-light areas now only exist in three states in India: Delhi, West Bengal, and Maharashtra. Even in these states, brothel-based sex work has sharply declined since the 1990s, with the rise of abolitionist anti-trafficking movements, police crackdowns, and real-estate redevelopment interests. Much sex work has migrated to streets or become internet- and phone-based.

In India, the dwindling of brothel-based sex work means that today, red-light areas are not distinguishable from urban slums, where sex workers reside alongside other marginalized members of the urban poor, including migrant workers , street vendors, pavement-dwellers, sanitation workers primarily from oppressed castes, and disadvantaged transgender-identified persons. The authors’ statement that “social distancing is impossible while having sex” misses the point. In India, 40% to 50% of urban residents live in dilapidated conditions in slum areas, where thanks to a lack of facilities, water supplies, and overcrowding, social distancing is impossible regardless of residents’ sexual activity. The authors of the study draw comparisons to countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Australia, where sex work is regulated in specific jurisdictions, and therefore “shutdowns” are possible. Given the mixed-use nature of urban Indian slums, however, they cannot be “shut down” in the same way as RLAs in Western countries. In India, moreover, brothels inhabit an ambiguous legal position, since the term is defined broadly to include a range of areas inhabited by sex workers and the urban poor. The recommendations of this study essentially invite the state to use its coercive powers— police raids and evictions— to victimise the most marginalised of slum-dwellers in the name of public health.

The study model, moreover, assumes but does not substantiate the claim that RLAs are a major source of COVID-19 infection. The authors assert that the states with the highest number of sex workers are also those with the greatest numbers of COVID infections, thereby positing a causal link between the two. However, in the absence of widespread testing and contact tracing, there is no clear evidence that sex workers are a point-source for the spread of COVID-19. The same could be hypothetically claimed of any close-contact occupations where distances of 2 meters cannot be maintained, including shop owners, domestic workers, care workers, waste-pickers, sanitation workers, bus conductors, street-vendors, delivery personnel, NGO workers, and, for that matter, even field researchers. In fact, there has been virtually no business in RLAs since 24th March 2020, when the lockdown was enforced, yet COVID-19 cases have been rapidly climbing. This shows that brothels are not contributing to the spread of COVID-19 at all. The steep climb in cases is a matter to be investigated, but it must not be arbitrarily blamed on the most marginalised communities in India.

Given the deeply harmful measures proposed by this study, the section on ameliorative measures is underdeveloped and impracticable. The suggestion that sex workers be rehabilitated and channelled into alternative occupations is naïve, since ample research demonstrates that most sex workers already have experience in other occupations such as domestic work and petty trading. Most choose sex work because it pays substantially more. Evidence from the past thirty years of HIV/AIDS prevention interventions also clearly demonstrates that coercive strategies such as raiding brothels and placing sex workers in “rehabilitation homes” violate the human rights of sex workers, and are also economically unsustainable in today’s neoliberal economy. The authors acknowledge that most sex workers lack government documentation and bank accounts. Yet they still vaguely suggest that that sex workers be given cash transfers and credit access from the government, without suggesting at all how this might be achieved. No government agency has, till date, spoken of relief measures for sex workers. It preposterous to think that the Indian government will provide alternative livelihoods for a segment of the population that the state does not even acknowledge. The authors’ suggestion that “reintegration expenditures could be offset by profits generated via the redevelopment of RLAs” amounts to pushing for greater gentrification, violent “slum clearances”, placing sex workers and poor residents in precarity and at greater risk for police harassment. The push to “redevelop” RLAs appears to be driven not by science but by a morally charged abolitionist condemnation of sex work itself.

For the above reasons, we the undersigned, demand that the study be retracted in full until the findings have been made available for peer review by academics, activists, and sex worker collectives.

Closing red-light areas to contain COVID-19: a misguided fantasy of containment

Photo credit @DMSC Kolkata

In the effort to contain COVID-19, “red light areas” are in danger of becoming a fantasy backdrop for the state to perform grand, empty gestures of “pandemic control.” This distracts from the fact that persons doing sex work in India, whether in brothels, homes, streets, lodges, or construction sites, belong to the vast population of poor migrants and informal sector workers who have been spectacularly abandoned at this time of lockdown and crisis.

By Shakthi Nataraj (

A disturbing new study went viral on Indian media outlets last week. Authored by scientists at Harvard Medical School and Yale University, it claims that shutting down red light areas in Mumbai, New Delhi, Nagpur, Kolkata and Pune during the lockdown can reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases by 72%, and recommends keeping them closed indefinitely. To ameliorate the effect on sex workers, one of the authors, Dr. Sudhakar Nuti, suggested in an email interview on Tuesday that they be linked to government schemes and channelled into other occupations. He seemed to see these as permanent measures to eradicate both the virus and sex work. COVID-19, he says, presents “an ideal natural opportunity to help sex workers exit their trade and find alternative livelihoods.”

While the full study has not been released yet for public review, this recommendation is based upon a flawed and dangerously simplistic understanding of where and how sex work occurs in India. With little or no consultation from sex worker collectives, activists, or academics, it recommends measures that will increase police violence and precarity for not only sex workers but millions of informal sector labourers and migrants across the country. The fantasy that there are clearly demarcated “red light areas” of contagion, that can be contained by dramatic “pandemic control” measures, distracts from the demonstrated impossibility of enforcing such measures in the current period of lockdown.

The study is apparently based on the National AIDS Control Organization’s estimate that there are 6,37,500 sex workers in India. This figure might seem enormous, but it must be disaggregated based on qualitative evidence from the field. The truth is that only a very small percentage of sex work in India work takes place in brothels. A study of 5301 sex workers across Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra showed that only 24% of respondents had ever in their life been in a brothel, and other studies consistently show that the vast majority of sex workers are street and home-based. Moreover, these spaces are not mutually exclusive: as anthropologist Svati Shah has documented in Mumbai, most brothel-based sex workers have also worked on streets and at construction sites where they might trade sex for work. Being migrants, they move frequently between different cities and their hometowns, relying on shifting networks of relatives, NGOs, state agencies, and other precarious city dwellers to keep afloat.

The study also falsely implies that there is a brisk and healthy “business as usual” in red-light areas, necessitating a dramatic “shutdown”. In cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, however, brothel-based sex work has steadily dwindled since the late 1990s, with the rise of abolitionist anti-trafficking movements, private redevelopment interests, and police crackdowns. Urban development researchers Kundu and Satija at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences find that the population of brothel-based sex workers in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light area, dwindled from almost 50,000 in 1992 to about 2000 in 2010 and only 500-1000 in 2016. They point out that most brothels in Kamathipura have been replaced by manufacturing units for bags, jeans dyeing, mats and cloth. These facts and figures are corroborated by Shah, who has studied sex work in Mumbai for over a decade. In a similar pattern, red-light areas in Goa, Surat and Pune were all but demolished between 2000 and 2004, with the land reclaimed for tourism, seaside hotels, highways, storefronts, and industrial units. As landlords, private developers, and state agencies lock horns over these prime pieces of real estate, poor tenants pay exorbitant rents for cramped quarters with no running water and often in violation of municipal regulations, making residents vulnerable to eviction at any time. Dr. Nuti’s blindingly obvious point that “social distancing is not possible while having sex” is something sex worker collectives are all too aware of, many of them having been HIV/AIDS peer educators for two decades. The bigger issue is that unsafe living conditions, exacerbated by decades of gentrification and anti-poor policies, make “social distancing” impossible for all slum residents. Is sex really the main risk factor for a virus spread by respiratory droplets, when 17 people must live in a house with no running water to wash their hands? Or in Sonagachi, where chronically damp walls place residents at chronic risk for tuberculosis?

Brothel-based sex work has declined even more radically in the past two months of lockdown. The All-India Network of Sex Workers reports that Delhi’s G.B. Road has completely shut down and that over 60% of sex workers have returned to their home states. Government agencies and NG0s estimate that there are between 986 and 1500 brothel-based sex workers on G.B. Road at the moment. In Sonagachi in Kolkata, a report from last month suggests that there are no more than 5000 brothel-based sex workers. In many areas women are being tossed out of brothels because they are unable to pay rent. In others, they are stranded in brothels without transport back home to their villages. Volunteers and NGOs are unable to distribute rations because of lockdown restrictions, and food prices have more than doubled. In this context, Dr. Nuti’s concern that hospital Intensive Care Units will be flooded by sex workers with COVID-19 seems somewhat misplaced. Hospitals have never lined up to treat sex workers even at the best of times, and COVID-19 is hardly the main threat to their health at the moment. Instead, organizations in Andhra report that ART medications to treat HIV/AIDS have been cut down to one batch of tablets every three months, and even these are ineffective without proper nutrition. The primary concern for sex workers at the moment is not whether they have clients (most do not), but how to gain access to government schemes in a context where most of them do not have ration cards because they cannot prove residence, and do not have Jan Dhan accounts to receive government funds.

Dr. Nuti’s warning that government schemes will save sex workers from “criminal moneylenders” is especially ironic, because sex workers themselves are treated as “criminals” by the law in India. As sex worker collectives have emphasized for decades, government policing and “brothel raid-and-rescues” are often why they fall into debt bondage in the first place, paying police bribes of up to Rs. 1500 per month in addition to legal fees, and losing wages while trapped in “rehabilitation homes.” A recent study by development economists in Andhra showed that over 90% of sex workers had been unable to save money in the previous six months.

At the deepest level, the problem with the study is that it naively exports a predictive model based on the Netherlands, Germany and Australia to India, a country which has a vastly different reality when it comes sex work, and to working conditions in general. A whopping 92% of India’s labouring population works in the informal sector where sex work occurs, and many persons doing sex work may not consider “sex worker” to be their primary work identity. Rather, they perform sex work while undertaking other forms of precarious, unregulated, and stigmatized work to survive. The fantasy of rehabilitating sex workers by channelling them into other livelihoods is misguided because many are already engaged in other livelihoods. A 2014 study of sex work in 14 states found that over 50% of women who sold sex had also worked as domestic workers, construction workers, or daily wage-earners and almost 30% of women continued to work in these other jobs even after taking up sex work. Many switched to doing sex work voluntarily and exclusively because they could earn 3 to 6 times as much as they did in other jobs. For instance, for about 70% of respondents, domestic work paid Rs. 500-1000 per month, while sex work paid Rs. 3000- 5000. Most persons doing sex work in Indian cities are female migrants from impoverished and drought-ridden areas. Many come from families of landless agricultural labourers and belong to SC, ST and OBC communities. On average they possess little formal education and support children, husbands, and families back home. A large proportion of transgender persons do sex work to survive after being cast out of their natal homes, coupling it with other livelihood options such as begging.

Since sex work is criminalized and marked by severe gender and caste-based stigma, it entails specific and unique forms of violence. Nevertheless, the current impulse to police space for reasons of “public health” has long been a way to render public space unsafe for the urban poor more generally. Legal ethnographer Prabha Kotiswaran has demonstrated how in Sonagachi, it is not anti-sex work legislation but laws governing tenancy and public space that tend to have the strongest effects on sex worker fortunes. She shows that in the case of street-based sex work too, laws related to public obscenity and nuisance, such as the Railways Act, give police and railway officials arbitrary power and legal immunity, while setting sex workers, beggars, street-vendors and pavement-dwellers against one another. Spaces such as Kamathipura and G.B. Road are home to a diverse mix of similarly vulnerable migrant workers, transgender persons, pavement-dwellers, sanitation workers primarily from oppressed dalit castes, street vendors, home-based beedi workers, and nomadic performer communities such as the Saperas. These proposed “closures” will certainly increase police violence and economic precarity for these communities.

It is in the face of these facts that the fantasy of “shutting down red light areas” takes on such seductive appeal for the state and middle classes alike. After all, the iconic “red-light area,” fetishized in countless films, novels, and moral crusades, has long distorted, even aestheticized, more pervasive political-economic conditions. Svati Shah argues that films such as Born Into Brothels and Slumdog Millionaire portray urban slums as ominous dens of sex trafficking where women need to be rescued, implicitly normalizing the rest of the city, while also masking the politics of gentrification, caste oppression, and precarious labour within areas like Kamathipura. Ethnographers across India have shown how police and anti-trafficking organizations, aided by the loose legal definition of a “brothel,” incorrectly portray children living in red light areas as “child sex workers” and consistently misrepresent voluntary sex workers as brothel-keepers or trafficked victims. This spectre of the brothel dates to the colonial period. Historian Ashwini Tambe has shown, for instance, how anti-prostitution laws such as The Contagious Diseases Act of 1868 produced red-light areas as a space of moral filth and contagion, justifying the control of public space in Mumbai more generally.

If these proposed closures are implemented, the “red light area” will again become a cinematic backdrop for the state to perform grand, empty gestures of “pandemic control.” The fantasy is that heroic scientists and police can cure COVID-19, sex work, and chronic poverty in one fell swoop. The reality is that persons doing sex work in India, whether in brothels, homes, streets, lodges, or construction sites, belong to the vast population of informal sector workers and migrants who the state has spectacularly abandoned at this time of lockdown and crisis. Instead of enforcing stricter lockdown, the government should heed the advice of grassroots activists and sex worker collectives and send provisions, not police, to the poorest inhabitants of India’s cities.


A shorter version of this article appeared on Open Democracy on 11.06.20. Shortly afterwards, the full study entitled ‘Modelling the Effect of Continued Closure of Red-Light Areas on COVID-19 Transmission in India’ (2020) was released online, authored by Sudhakar V. Nuti of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, along with Jeffrey P. Townsend, Alison P. Galvani, Abhishek Pandey, Pratha Sah, and Chad Wells at the Yale School of Public Health. Despite not having been peer-reviewed, the authors bypassed civil society organisations completely and shared the study with media outlets in India as well as lawmakers. To combat this study, a group of activists and academics including Prabha Kotiswaran and Shakthi Nataraj at the Laws of Social Reproduction project, Meena Seshu (SANGRAM), Aarthi Pai (SANGRAM), Siddharth Dube, Sundar Sundararaman, Mona Mishra, Tripti Tandon (Lawyer’s Collective), and Shyamala Nataraj (SIAAP), drafted a statement of concern that was shared with the deans of Harvard Medical School and Yale School of Public Health, and the Vice-President for Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. The statement had over 140 signatories, including former health secretaries of the Government of India, leading policymakers and civil society leaders, sex worker collectives, and academics. The statement was highly effective, leading the dean of Yale School of Public Health to initiate an investigation into the study, and media outlets to publicly denounce the study in India.

To add your name to our statement, please fill out the form below:

Precarity and the Effect of Sudden Economic Shock on the Intimate Labour Force in India

(This piece was originally published on the Solidarity and Care platform, supported and produced by the Sociological Review, to document the various and diverse experiences and caring strategies of groups around the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and can be found here)

By Sutapa Majumdar, Post-Doctoral Researcher focusing on Bar Dancing

At a time when India’s GDP growth is abysmally low, nothing else could have been worse than a sudden economic shock brought in by an unknown virus resulting in unprecedented human suffering which will unfortunately take a long time to heal. While relatively better off classes can bounce back to normalcy, it will be a difficult task for the enormous labyrinth of informal labourers that account for over ninety per cent of the country’s workforce which include a large number of marginalized workers engaged in precarious work such as ‘sex work’ and ‘bar dancing’.

In a society such as ours, where inequality is normalized on the basis of gender, class and caste and where women’s work is thought to be an extension of their reproductive duties— unrecognized, invisible and undervalued, women performing intimate labour such as sex work or for that matter, erotic dancing bear the double brunt of regulatory bans and sudden economic shock that alters their very existence.

On August 15, 2005, the thriving bar dancing community of Mumbai lost its livelihood overnight to a Government imposed regulatory ban in the name of protecting normative ideas of sexual purity and chastity and to “prevent immoral activities, trafficking of women and to ensure the safety of women in general.” Close to 75,000 women and girls working as bar dancers and 1,50,00 people directly or indirectly associated with bar dancing business in Mumbai were left jobless due to the ban. The impact was daunting. In the absence of regular income and out of fear of being harassed by the police and landlords, many chose to commit suicide, or disappeared due to the fear of being recognized. Many went back to their village and others joined sex work and became part of transnational escort services and strip clubs while the rest engaged in precarious work marked by uncertainty, abuse and violence. The ban thus was single handedly responsible for not only taking away a very steady income from these women, who anyway had limited employment opportunities but also exposed them to precarity and unprecedented risk.

The push down-pop up effect of such sudden economic shock resulted in mushrooming of innumerable dance bars, beers bars across the nation, mostly hidden, thus exposing the bar dancers to increased risk of violence and trafficking, pointing to the fact that such events do not necessarily eliminate a form of labour, although it might for some time change the nature and pace of work. For example, when the bars were shut overnight in Mumbai, Kolkata[1] became the main hub of bar dancing. But here since bar dancing was very hidden and being done more in the form of a family hotel and restaurant business, private parties, pole dance, cabaret, nude/strip dance, the women who were initially working in a protected environment in Mumbai were exposed to several threats, including forced prostitution. In the absence of any collective, or union and NGOs, or women’s group helping them, they remained at the mercy of agents, hotel owners and clients, and thus exposed to irregular and lesser income coupled with a high risk of violence.

While it took fifteen years for the bar dancers to come back to business, women performing sexual labour have more recently been subject to two very sudden economic shocks- demonetization and the COVID-19 pandemic. I discuss here the immediate and the long-term ramifications of these financial emergencies faced by women with scarce livelihood opportunities.

Demonetization and its impact on Sex Workers
While my insight is based on specific experiences of sex workers in Pune, demonetization (introduced on 9 November 2016 with no warning) affected sex workers throughout the nation. They were unprepared to deal with the sudden redundancy of old notes, which immediately impacted upon their day-to-day business, given their reliance on cash transactions. Both occupational and personal finances were strained due to limited access to mainstream financial systems. Sex workers struggled to access valid money and rescue their small-scale savings of invalidated notes, mostly kept with money lenders in the absence of a bank account.

Demonetization clearly showed that sex workers were excluded from the banking system. Hence, they lost a major portion of their earnings overnight. Almost four years down the line, the situation remains the same. The majority of sex workers across the nation do not have a bank account nor do they have ration cards, health cards, birth certificates for their children, or documents proving residence, all of which have denied them access to government schemes and programs.

With lower denomination notes like 50, 100,200 suddenly at a premium, the bargaining spread widened and led to a contraction in the volume of business. In some cases, the women had to opt out of business or were compelled to operate at a price determined not by the bargain but by the availability of money. Younger sex workers, who had a better chance of attracting customers even during demonetization could manage the cash flows unlike middle-aged and older sex workers. In the absence of clients and with scanty savings, the women had to sell their jewelry at a cheaper rate for everyday expenses.

While the elimination of “illegal” money was one of the professed intentions behind demonetization, informal markets became sites for the parking of cash as well as its generation. Within various red-light areas, a parallel clandestine market for cash emerged, where old notes could be exchanged at a steep commission of twenty to twenty five per cent leading to gross devaluation of savings for sex workers and a huge income for those facilitating the exchange, given the latter’s access to the banking system and new currency. Thus, multiple informal players, mushrooming at this time used demonetization to make money at the expense of the workers.

Demonetization disrupted the ritual of soliciting. A sudden disappearance of old currency notes led to the sudden disappearance of clients. No technique was good enough to tempt a potential customer. Unlike other businesses, sex workers could not extend credit lines to customers as this would mean sex for free which they couldn’t afford at this time even with their fixed clients.

Given the lack of regular business, sex workers were compelled to scout for money-generating alternatives-often taking recourse to illegal means. Ironically, access to the formal banking system was one such channel. For the few sex workers who had a bank account, this became the means to generate income. Older and middle-aged sex workers charged a small commission to stand in place for other sex workers (who were still getting their regular customers) in the bank queues to both deposit and withdraw cash. As a demonstration of the creative resilience so commonly found in informal labour markets, a host of such survival strategies were invented, though short-lived.

Invisible and Unaccounted – Sex Workers and Bar Dancers Rise to the demands of Global Pandemic
Once again these women are at the crossroads. Though the pandemic has affected every worker in the country, it has been devastating for sex workers and bar dancers. While not much is known about the plight of bar dancers in the country, sex workers are finding it difficult to survive with no hope of revival of business in the near future. In addition, the lack of basic documents has deprived them of access to the public distribution system and all other subsidies and financial support announced by the Government at this time of crisis.

With almost no help coming from the government, sex workers across the nation have become frontline workers in their own right and have raised funds through various means to support their community- by distributing dry rations and other essentials, arranging regular supplies of medicines, running community kitchens for those unable to cook, mobilizing funds to be transferred to families in need, providing shelter to the homeless and providing emotional support in a time of distress. For instance, the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), sex workers are reaching out to its community members in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu. In places like Madurai and Kolkata, sex workers are mobilizing the community, providing customized information to its members and negotiating with Social Welfare and Child Welfare Departments to mobilize relief. Additionally these women are volunteering to educate people about hygiene, hand washing, and how to remain safe in this time of crisis.

It’s heartening to see that when society has denied these women their basic human dignity and when their very survival in this new world is uncertain, they are not giving up and are finding ways to reach out to as many as they can to offer support. The sudden economic shock as we have seen leaves a lasting impact on the lives of this sexualized labour force and not all can revive their occupation in the future. It is hard hitting this time, unlike demonetization where the women in sexualized labour could still continue working, with COVID-19 everyone including the customers are the victims of this sudden economic shock and it is only equitable access to welfare schemes that can help them survive with some dignity. Hence it is high time that the Government recognizes the existence of this marginalized workforce and provide a safety net for them to tide over such difficult times, as they are resilient and are here to stay.

[1] ‘The traps and the lures of Kolkata’s dance bars’, Hindustan times, May 22, 2017

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Trafficking of labour in Global Supply Chains: Understanding the central debates

Dr Sophy K J, postdoctoral research associate

Critical engagement with contemporary discourses on extreme exploitation such as ‘modern slavery’, ‘trafficking’, ‘forced labour’, ‘indenture labour’ and ‘bonded labour’ throw open not only academic debate on forms of neo-servitude, but also outlines the failures of regulatory approaches on the ground which have for centuries sought to address the historical crime of slavery. The international conference on “Human Trafficking & Supply Chains: Corporate Responsibility Beyond Transparency Legislation” held at India Habitat Centre and the National Law University Delhi on 18-19th November, 2019, brought together scholars from several disciplinary fields to deliberate upon the continuum of older forms of forced labour and forms of trafficking within newer employment practices.

The Opening Session of the Conference emphasised that without challenging the causal factors of structural inequality based on caste, ethnicity, gender and class, the solutions would be non-specific, procedural and simplistic. The session deliberated upon various forms of reactions from different stake holders, the state, academia and social movements, to combat trafficking in India. There was consensus on the argument that conflating all sex work with trafficking and further criminalisation of sex workers’ livelihood makes them more vulnerable to stigma and discrimination in society. This perspective opened further deliberations on better approaches to counter human trafficking. Dr. Hila Shamir argued for a paradigm shift in anti-trafficking policy: a move away from the currently predominant human rights approach to trafficking and the adoption of a labour approach that targets the structure of labour markets prone to severely exploitative labour practices. According to her, a labour paradigm offers more effective strategies for combating trafficking by adopting five measures such as (1) preventing the criminalization and deportation of workers who report exploitation; (2) eliminating binding arrangements; (3) reducing recruitment fees and the power of middlemen; (4) guaranteeing the right to unionize; and (5) extending and enforcing the application of labour and employment laws to vulnerable workers.

Prof. Prabha Kotiswaran (principal investigator of this project), while critiquing the criminal justice approach to trafficking, articulated a critique of the labour approach to trafficking (which presumes the existence of a formal economy in the Global North) by referring to substantially different configurations of the state, market, civil society and legal system in the Global South. She argued that Global South countries tailor their labour laws to the informal economy while envisaging a robust role for the developmental state in addressing fundamental economic inequalities (by guaranteeing rural employment and workfare) that renders workers vulnerable to trafficking to begin with. Hence, the need to deviate from conventional regulatory responses, especially carceral approaches to ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ and instead implement domestic labour and social welfare laws which are themselves the result of long-term struggles for decent work and against extreme exploitation. She explained judicial activism around defining ‘forced labour’ and possibilities of taking it further to deal with forced labour and trafficking.

Further, various sessions of the conference also addressed practices of trafficking and the lack of regulatory regime in varied employment sites such as sex work, garment production, migrant domestic work and construction work. These sessions interrogated the common predicament of workers’ struggles for dignity and recognition in the domain of work, especially in ‘stigmatised labour’. The discussions around dignity, respectability and recognition challenged structural inequalities based on gender, caste, class and ethnicity. Deliberations on solutions and the way forward problematised inadequate regulatory or compliance regimes as a reason for the non-recognition of various forms of labour, especially women’s work including care work and sexual labour, and queried whether the concept of social reproduction can help recognise different forms of women’s labour and secure rights, entitlements and justice. The conference apprised how at a time of underemployment, unemployment and starvation; workers are often entrapped in unfair labour practices amounting to trafficking. Participants concluded that empowering workers by securing their rights is preferable to arrest trafficking in labour sectors, then treating workers as victims and engaging in ‘piecemeal tinkering’ through raid, rescue and rehabilitation measures.

Caste that Governs: The Dancing Girls of Mumbai’s Dance Bars

By: Dr. Sutapa Majumdar, Post-Doctoral Associate

Globalisation has created new spaces of employability for men and women and brought in a range of livelihood options for diverse groups and strata of Indian society: erotic dancing being one example. Several marginalised, excluded and artistically skillful young women have found work in spaces such as hotels, bars and clubs, mostly concentrated in urban centers. Bar dancing as work has been scorned to scale by some feminists and the moral crusaders of the times who consider such engagement as an extreme form of commodification and exploitation of already marginalised and excluded feminine bodies to satisfy the sexual urge of upper caste, neo-rich and neo-capitalist men.

We acknowledge that those who opt to dance in bars to earn a livelihood usually represent women of the lower strata of society, namely those who are Dalit/other lower-castes or from denotified tribes, who have limited opportunities to secure socially sanctioned work possibilities. Yet, as part of the ‘laws of social reproduction’ project’, we believe and acknowledge that bar dancing and similar occupations (like unpaid care work, sex work and commercial surrogacy) are forms of reproductive labour with a specific market value of their own, which ought to be considered as a form of labour and work. Further, we consider these as work because, although they remain highly unrecognised and invisible, they add to the overall economic wellbeing of the family and society, and therefore deserve dignity and respect both in the eyes of the law and mainstream society at large. Not surprisingly, there is not much study of such socially reproducible labour in India and even less is known on the laws and policies related to this field of work.

Sameena Dalwai, a researcher, writer and an academic recently released her monograph, “Bans and Bar Girls: Performing Caste in Mumbai’s Dance Bar” at the Qutub Institute in Delhi on 4th December 2019. In this monograph, Sameena attempts to highlight the interplay of gender, caste, erotic and sexualized labour, the new market economy, and new forms of legislation, that aim to be neutral in principle yet function to safeguard the moralistic culture of a patriarchal society. At the launch of the book, panelists included Pratiksha Baaxi of JNU, Anuja Agarwal of the Delhi School of Economics and Saptarshi Mandal of Jindal Global Law School. Whilst introducing the book, Ritu Menon from Women Unlimited (the books publisher) identified it as a resource which is both serious and scholarly and yet easily accessible to general readers. She congratulated Sameena for her very spontaneous and engaging ethnographic study eliciting the minutest details of the life of bar dancers, a subject that is seldom talked about.

Prof Agarwal said that it was a forceful book which tabled an important contribution in understanding how many women from the nomadic communities, lower castes, Dalit and various denotified tribes in India, became dancers in bars and how they were the ones who suffered most of the consequences of the bans. Professor Mandal too agreed with Ritu Menon in saying that the book is an excellent resource for undergraduate teaching as it is easily accessible, and further elucidated on the books important contribution to the ongoing debate on caste and sexuality, as well as the debate between upper caste and Dalit feminists on issues of sex work and bar dancing. One shortcoming of the book, he noted, was its exclusion of the voices of the women who are talked about, the Dalit sex workers as well as activists and organisations who have been working on issues of sex work in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka as to how they feel about themselves and their work. Further, he noted that he would have liked the author to problematise the concept of ‘hereditary occupation’ in a bit more in detail, the factors it entails-who uses this trope-the feminist, the bar dancers or the sex workers? Saying so, he acknowledged that the book does make an crucial intervention in highlighting that gender, caste and sexuality equation are not stagnant but that they interact in a dynamic reality where certain forms of stigmatised labour become highly valuable in the face of globalisation.

Prof. Pratiksha Baxi in her reading of the book shared how it has made an important contribution to mainstream law and governance studies by highlighting the concept of caste governance from a feminist perspective  through a deep ethnographic and legal research on the ban of dance bars in Mumbai, tracing its shifting meaning and life after the ban, which not many have engaged in. Further focusing on the discourses on moral panic and the perceived ‘ruination’ of young middle-class men, she dwelt on a complicated legal history of the ban engaging at length how it affected the women and everyone else who was directly or indirectly associated with the dance bars.

This book is a rich ensemble of the inside world of the bar dancers and discusses a range of known and unknown realities about bars and bar girls in Mumbai’s dance bars, a must read for those who are curious about the city that never sleeps.

Of Freedoms & Agency: Commercial Surrogacy and Reproductive Rights – by Sneha Banerjee

Dr. Sneha Banerjee is a research associate exploring commercial surrogacy in India

On 5-6th December 2019, I participated in the International Conference on (Non)Reproductive Freedom: Theories, Experiences and Movements at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice organised by the feminist journal – DEP. Apart from a larger focus on the conceptual and activist insights on reproductive rights and freedoms, reproductive justice and intersectionality, the conference included quite a few papers on surrogacy addressing the question of commodification, labour, contracts, state-level regulation, transnational complications and its nascent international regulation. My paper, titled, “Commercial Surrogacy & Reproductive Freedom: Reflections from Regulatory Debates in India” sought to highlight the different voices from the women’s movement in India (not yet sharply polarised) and the trajectory of regulation from quasi-legalisation to prohibition. Diverse voices in the Indian context have demanded strict regulation – feminists demanding safeguards for surrogates, especially their right to health, professional associations of infertility doctors, and lawyers to name a few important actors. Yet, there has not been a loud clamour for prohibition, especially not the variant that the Indian state has sought to introduce through the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019 which bans commercial surrogacy but conditionally allows altruistic surrogacy for married infertile couples when arranged among ‘close relatives’.  My paper also included insights from my doctoral research regarding the laboring lives of women who acted as surrogates in India for whom surrogacy was one among many ‘options’ in the informal labour market. While India has emerged as one of the most prominent (erstwhile) hubs of transnational surrogacy for almost a decade and a half, and there has been a considerable body of scholarship informed by ethnographic and field-based insights, there still remains an acute need for continued emphasis on a grounded understanding of the phenomenon. It is important to recognise that the surrogacy ‘industry’ flourished in India largely through a vast network of intermediaries, who cannot simply be wished away with a ban, without proper mechanisms of effective implementation. Currently, the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019 stipulates steep fines and up to ten years of imprisonment for violation – provisions that are likely to lead to fewer convictions. Moreover, if addressing the exploitation of women who act as surrogates is one of the core concerns as the Bill seeks to address, then allowing only altruistic surrogacy among close relatives does not necessarily achieve that objective.

The discussions on surrogacy at the conference demonstrated that it is important to contextualise commercial surrogacy as a form of embodied labour, which evokes normative questions around ‘new’ forms of women’s labour, appropriate regulatory responses that have a rights-based approach for the commissioning parents, surrogates and children born through surrogacy at their core as well as questions on ‘çhoice’ or its limits in face of structural inequalities. The enforceability of surrogacy contracts is also far from settled — globally where many jurisdictions recognise them albeit only when non-commercial; and particularly in the Indian context where courts are yet to deliberate on such contracts in depth. While a concern about the rights of the most vulnerable in surrogacy arrangements, namely the women who act as surrogates and the children that they give birth to, remains a unifying concern for feminists globally, yet divergences are often glaring in how we seek to understand women’s agency and (re)imagine families beyond hetero-normative frames. Such divergences and contestations are also around how to understand the phenomenon and some of these were highlighted during the discussions in the conference. Firstly, is commercial gestational surrogacy yet another bastion of technological control over women’s reproductive capacities? Secondly, what are the limits of possibilities for the fulfilment of the reproductive rights of some individuals/couples through another woman (where they are often in a hierarchical relationship)? Lastly, whether transnational surrogacy can be understood as an example of women in constrained contexts negotiating and bargaining with globalized informal labour markets. Evidently, surrogacy, as a form of biological and social reproduction, is an important illustration of the relevance of continued feminist dialogue and engagement despite the contestations it entails.

I would like to acknowledge the travel grant and financial support provided by the Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH), Delhi, where I previously held a postdoctoral fellowship (2018-19), that facilitated my participation in this conference.

Has the Dial Moved on the Indian Sex Work Debate?

See Prabha Kotiswaran’s latest piece in Economic & Political Weekly here.

The Journey Begins

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