A lane in Kamathipura
|Elevation||4 m (13 ft)|
|Time zone||IST (UTC+5:30)|
Kamathipura (also spelled Kamthipuram) is Mumbai's oldest and Asia's second largest red-light district. It was first settled after 1795 with the construction of causeways that connected the erstwhile seven islands of Bombay. Initially known as Lal Bazaar, it got its name from the Kamathis (workers) of other areas of the country, who were labourers on construction sites. Due to tough police crackdown, in the late 1990s with the rise of AIDS and government's redevelopment policy that helped sex workers to move out of the profession and subsequently out of Kamathipura, the number of sex workers in the area has dwindled. In 1992, Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) recorded there were 50,000 sex workers here which was reduced to 1,600 in 2009, with many sex workers migrating to other areas in Maharashtra and real estate developers taking over the high-priced real estate.
After the completion of the Hornby Vellard project in 1784, which built a causeway uniting all seven islands of Bombay under William Hornby, governor of Bombay (1771-1784), plugged the Great Breach in Mahalaxmi, while the subsequent Bellasis Road causeway joined Mazagaon and Malabar Hill in 1793. This resulted in several low-lying marshy areas of Mumbai Flats like Byculla, Tardeo, Mahalaxmi and Kamathipura opening up for habitation. Thereafter starting 1795, Kamathis (workers) of other areas of the country, working as labourers on construction sites began settling here, giving the area its present name. It was bounded by Bellasis Road on the north, by Grant Road on the south and the main road across, Falkland Road. At one point during this period it was home to a Chinese community, which worked as dockhands and ran restaurants. By the late 19th century it all changed.
Till then, as previous 1864 Census figures for Bombay indicate, other areas had a larger population of prostitutes, like Girgaum (1,044), Phanaswadi (1,323) and Oomburkharee (1,583) compared with Kamathipura (601), all which declined after 1864. This small region boasted the most exotic consorts. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a large number of women and girls from continental Europe and Japan were trafficked into Kamathipura, where they worked as prostitutes servicing British soldiers and local Indian men. Gradually, social stratification also took place: A busy road in Kamathipura was known as Safed Gully (White Lane) owing to the European prostitutes housed here during the British Raj. The lane is now known as Cursetji Shuklaji Street. The most well-known brothel in the area, Pila House, is the hybridisation of its original word: Playhouse. The first venereal disease clinic of Bombay was opened in 1916, taken over by BMC in 1925. Nearby, Bachchuseth ki Wadi on Foras Road was famous for its kothewalis or tawaifs and mujras.
When the British left India, the Indian sex workers took over. In recent decades, large numbers of Nepalese women and girls have also been trafficked into the district as sex workers. Over the years under Indian government rule, the sex industry in Kamathipura continued to flourish, and trafficking brought women from different parts of the country here. Eventually it became Asia's largest sex district.
Today, it is said that there are so many brothels in the area that there is no space for the sex workers to sit. They hang around in the streets, solicit customers, and then rent an available bed. The 3,000-odd buildings in the area are largely dilapidated and in urgent need of repairs; safe drinking water and sanitation is scarce as well.
Some historical sources point out that the origin of slums, subsequently the red-light areas of Mumbai including Kamathipura is related to land acquisition, from the indigenous locals who were evicted from their farmlands and cattle-fields and forced themselves to live in congested conditions, for the development of the industrial harbor city. At the early stages, people accumulated in the new slums partly depended on constructions contracts. Later, as men became unemployed due to lack of jobs, more women turned up selling themselves in the red-streets for livelihood. Now these streets are playgrounds for human traffickers and mafia in addition to the economic refugees who came during the past years. In the 1970s and early '80s Bachchu Wadi at Kamathipura was frequented by gangleaders from Mumbai underworld, such as Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, and Dawood Ibrahim.
In 2005, with a statewide ban on dance bars, many dancing girls, who couldn't find other means of income, moved to prostitution to survive, in Mumbai's red-light districts, like Kamathipura. According to police, in 2005, there were 100,000 prostitutes working out of five-star hotels and brothels across Mumbai.
Kamathipura is divided into roughly 14 lanes and divided according to regional and linguistic backgrounds of the sex workers. Most of the sex workers come from other Indian states. There is little interaction between areas, which makes it harder for social organizations to organize them into a movement or union. Further, lack of public opinion, political leadership or social activism which is empathetic towards them means a tough time forming unions.
NGOs in Kamathipura
A lot of literature is available about the socio-economic political aspects of prostitution. However, very little information is available on the government and non-governmental efforts to help this section of the population lead a dignified life.
An in-depth study of the red-light area and the pattern of functioning reflect the dehumanizing situation that the commercially sexually exploited women face every day. They are pushed into the trade at a young age, at times even before they attain puberty. They are, thus, not aware of the trap they are falling into. Once in the trade, there is no escape till the brothel keeper has earned well enough through them. Here they are subjected to physical and mental torture if they refuse to abide by the wishes of the keeper. As most women have no formal education, they have no knowledge of how much they earn. When they are allowed to leave the set-up, they are most probably a victim of life-threatening diseases like AIDS, without any place to go. In all probability, they will continue in the area and start soliciting and earning. Once trapped in the trade, women get pulled into a vicious circle from which escape is difficult. They get succor through the contacts with organizations working in the area. They form the bridge for them to develop linkage with the outside world, which also form the support system to the women, should they choose to move out of the trade.
Many organizations work in Kamatipura, dealing with aspects like rescue of minors, health awareness and treatment with special focus on AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, providing counseling services, de-addiction programs, skill development and training, etc. Some organizations help in taking care of the children of the workers by providing full-time care, protection and education through the day/night care shelters or residential homes away from the red-light area.
Government organizations like MDACS (Mumbai District AIDS Control Society)[who?] have played a very prominent role in generating awareness on HIV/AIDS through the assistance provided in providing free literature and organizing street campaigns.
There are many organizations working in Kamatipura: International Justice Mission, Navjeevan Centre an undertaking of Marthoma Church, CCDT, Prerana, Oasis India, Jyoti Kalash, SAI, Bombay Teen Challenge, Stop Sex Slavery, Salvation Army, Apne Aap, etc. Each organisation has independent specific goals which could be health, education or overall rehabilitation of the workers and/or their children.
Since 2005, the Sanghamitra collective, run by and for the sex workers of Kamatipura, has provided practical assistance to women in the sex trade as well as helping to rescue children and trafficked women from the brothels.
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