Engaging with Dalit- Bahujan perspectives on work and labour in paid domestic work

December 2020
Lotika Singha, University of Wolverhampton 

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how India’s caste system remains entrenched in everyday life, with many domestic workers being treated as a ‘necessary threat’. It is widely agreed that regulation of domestic work from a labour rights’ perspective is crucial to ensure dignity of the workers. However, domestic workers’ dignity is also contingent on cultural understandings of domestic work in terms of caste, class, gender and ethnicity. In the dominant colonial master/patron–servant/slave, Marxist feminist and gendered frameworks of paid domestic work in India, the Brahaminical cultural construction of domestic work as low-value and demeaning is recognised. However, the Dalit–Bahujan knowledge systems, which have challenged the casteist mental/manual and purity/pollution binaries have received little attention. Drawing on Dalit–Bahujan perspectives and a cross-cultural analysis of paid-for domestic cleaning in two particular social contexts, one in the UK and one in India, I will argue that a labour rights’ perspective may be more effective in ensuring workers’ dignity when the casteised meanings of manual work are simultaneously. 

Care work without care workers: The vulnerability of India’s women community health volunteers

Jan 2021 

How does volunteerism shape the experience of paid care workers in the state? Vrind Marwah discusses vulnerabilities and new ways in which the devaluation of care is being institutionalized, and care as a gendered practice is being naturalized.

Speaker: Vrinda Marwah, University of Texas, Austin

Debates For and Against Wages for Housework

6th March 2021  

Indian women spend a disproportionately high number of daily hours on unpaid domestic and care work when compared with Indian men, making such work highly gendered and unequally distributed. An election promise by Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Majam to pay housewives a monthly wage has sparked a national debate over salaries for housewives. The debate will discuss the pros and cons of wages for housework. 

Symposium on Wages for Housework

4 – 6th March 2021 

Women in India spend up to 352 minutes per day on domestic work which is 577 per cent more than men (52 minutes) and at least 40 per cent more than the women in China (234 minutes) and South Africa (250 minutes) (OECD, 2017). Time-use data from 2019 gathered by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) revealed that more than 80 per cent of women and girls above 6 years engaged in unpaid domestic work, compared to over a quarter of men. Unpaid domestic and care work (UDCW) is thus highly gendered and highly unequally distributed in India.

Watch Session 1: Herstories of Wages for Housework
Chair & Moderator: Samita Sen, University of Cambridge

The Sexual Politics of Anti-Trafficking Discourse

by Prabha Kotiswaran

0 years since the negotiation of the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in 2000, the anti-trafficking field has gone from an early, almost exclusive preoccupation with sex work to addressing extreme exploitation in a range of labour sectors. While this might suggest a reduced focus on the nature of the work performed and a greater focus on the conditions under which it is performed, in reality, anti-trafficking discourse remains in the grip of polarised positions on sex work even as the carceral effects of anti-trafficking law become evident and the Swedish model of criminalising the purchase of sexual services spreads. In this article, I demonstrate how despite the recent discursive shifts to ‘modern slavery’ and ‘forced labour’, the anti-trafficking transnational legal order itself reinforces, rather than diffuses cultures of sex work exceptionalism. The growing international sex workers’ movement has offered resistance, yet a closer look at the movement and the widespread support that it has garnered for decriminalisation from international organisations, while valuable, helps reveal the greatest cost yet of anti-trafficking discourse, namely, the inability of the sex workers’ movement to produce a sophisticated theory of regulation to reduce levels of exploitation within sex work, one which is commensurate with the informality and heterogeneity of sex markets the world over. Finally, to the extent that neoabolitionist projects derive legitimacy from interventions abroad, especially in the global South, I chronicle the edifice on which it rests in one such context, namely India, to demonstrate how countries in the global South are not merely conduits for the global North’s preoccupation with moral gentrification through neo-abolitionism, but rather, that the circuits of global governmentality while influential, are highly contingent, thus producing opportunities for creative forms of mobilisation by sex workers.

Theorizing the Continuities between Marriage and Sex Work in the Experience of Female Sex Workers in Pune, Maharashtra

by Shakthi Nataraj and Sutapa Majumdar

Marriage is near-universal in India, where most cisgender women sex workers have been married at some point in their lives, while also navigating responsibilities to family and children. In this paper, we explore how cisgender women sex workers in Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, experience continuities between sex work and marriage, while navigating an ideological landscape where sex work and marriage are positioned as opposites. Returning to feminist theoretical models that highlight the economic underpinnings of marriage, we outline three arenas in the Indian context where marriage and sex work overlap rather than remaining opposed and separate entities: (a) migration, (b) attributions of respect and stigma, coded through symbols of marriage and sexual availability, and (c) building and dissolving kinship networks that contest the primacy of biological or affinal kin. In each of these realms the distinction between marriage and sex work is a fraught and contested issue, and the roles of wife, mother, and sex worker can shade into one another based on context. We then examine how three women navigate these contradictions, arguing that focusing on kinship and marriage can circumvent the limitations of the choice versus coercion paradigm that structures current debates on sex work. 

Divine labours, devalued work: the continuing saga of India’s surrogacy regulation

This article offers a feminist critique of the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill,2019. Fifteen years since the first proposed regulation of assisted repro-ductive technologies and surrogacy, the 2019 Bill leaves much to bedesired. It reflects a limited understanding of the complexities of surro-gacy, is discriminatory in its approach, is plagued by lack of clarity, isunrealistic and most importantly, does not include adequate safeguardsfor the surrogate. Women’s reproductive labour in performing surro-gacy is valorized but not compensated. Even though the Bill may wellaccept some recommendations of the Rajya Sabha select Committee, itsfailure to address issues that we highlight will mean that if passed, it willbe challenged in the courts on constitutional grounds. This will generateuncertainty for years, for many infertile couples and individuals wholook to the law for streamlined regulation, defeating its main purpose infacilitating a novel mode of reproduction.

Legalizing sex: sexual minorities, AIDS, and citizenship in India

August 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 (shakthi.nataraj@kcl.ac.uk)

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.

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