In Focus

Sex, Lies And Work On The SLy

Gajanan Khergamker / Mumbai

In Mumbai, the sex trade by foreigners who come on tourist visas is flourishing. Bollywood dreams and money on the sly are prime motivators, the alleys and theatres in Colaba the principal haunts. Police, meanwhile, are wary about taking action in light of a recent home ministry directive

All you can see from a distance is a long, waxen leg with black stiletto heel peeping out from between two parked cars in a by-lane off South Mumbai’s famed Apollo Bunder Road near the Gateway of India. It’s enough to trigger the imagination; the dark of the night helps you conjure up the obvious images of things that happen far from the public gaze.

Closer up you see a visibly-inebriated foreigner in her mid-twenties, trying to stand straight, cigarette in hand against the bonnet of a black Astra.

“Feel like some fun?” she asks. “Take me… I’m all yours,” she pouts in her huskiest voice, flashing tobacco-stained teeth. A foreigner, one truly wasted. Evidently a drug user, “Saira” as she calls herself, is practised at the lines she voices in a heavily-Arabic accent while exuding a cocaine-laced breath.

On her ninth trip to India, Saira feels no fear as she waltzes her way across the dark SoBoby-lane yelling, “Saahyeb” as she waves out to a local police van passing by. The van doesn’t slow down, it continues its journey as if she didn’t exist. They’re used to her shenanigans. Saira swiftly turns the wave into a raised middle finger as it moves out of sight.

“These asses never bother harassing me now. Not after I taught them a lesson for picking me up once,” she says with a wink. Apparently, when Saira was nabbed by the police during a nightly sojourn, she called a local politician, also a “human rights activist”, who intimidated them into releasing her and gave them an earful.

“What can they do at worst… deport me? I’ll return within months,” she says. “I love India. And Indian men love me. They pay well to fuck a gori,” says the sex-worker, originally from Turkey.
Having worked as an extra in the backdrop for three song numbers in Hindi films, Saira claims to have landed a role in a “full-length” film as assured by a “producer” who has also paid her an advance of Rs. 30,000 for it. “They’ll be shooting at a bungalow near Bangalore for two months for which I’ll be getting paid Rs. 10 lakh once it’s over,” she says. “Needless to say, there will be ‘action’ if not in the movie surely during the shooting.”

Over the years, regular police action and repeated citizen initiatives have cleared the “high” zone in and around the Gateway of India—once notorious for drugs, sex and violence— weeding out Nigerians and local users. But now the space is occupied by someone else, fair foreigner sex-workers masquerading as tourists from Turkey, Russia and most of Europe, selling sex—on the move, in a car or at a place of your convenience.

Saira is one of the hundreds who sleep by day in a shady dormitory stretch in a hotel along Mere Weather Road. They wake up by dusk and hit the road, complete with stockings and make-up. Then there’s a string of backpacking foreigners selling sex on the street in innovative ways. They talk to prospective clients on the road, in a shop, at a restaurant, without anyone raising an eyebrow. Unlike their Indian counterparts, they get away with just about anything because of their nationality.

“She could pass off as a tourist who has lost her way and commits no offence while asking for directions or help, right?” says a senior police officer who does not want to be named. “So the prostitutes increase like weeds.” Unless they’re booked as prostitutes at any point of time, they remain tourists.

Along the Gateway of India stretch alone, there are about a hundred girls selling their bodies. “You can take your pick from Spanish, Nigerian, Australian, Turkish, even Arab girls you’d never imagine in the trade,” says local taxi-driver Abdul Miyan.

Exposing a deep cleavage and reeking of rum, she sashays through seated viewers between two rows of seats in a pitch-dark south Mumbai cinema hall barely a stone’s throw from the Gateway. She stumbles often, once straight onto a male lap, grabbing just the attention she wants till she slides into her own seat, right at the end, in a corner.

“Deed I mizz too much?” she asks the man seated next to her with a distinct foreign accent hard to understand, lips “accidentally” brushing his cheek, breast pressing against his arm as she talks. In the next half hour, the man briefs her on what she’s missed and more. If he’s capable of coughing up the fees, she’ll give him a hand-job during the movie itself or, for a few bucks more, a “full job” at a hotel “near the sea”.

Wilma—a South African regular—chargesRs. 500 for a hand-job and Rs. 2,000for sex for an hour at a hotel, of course, ‘hotel charges extra’. And she goes only to “her” hotel… one that charges Rs. 1,000 for an hour and saves for her a cut of Rs. 300 each time she brings a client over. “I’m scared of going to any other hotel,” she says to convince her client. After an hour’s foreplay in the cinema, not many men are in the mood to argue.

Incidentally, Wilma’s available only during the day as she’s mostly out with her friends by night. They include two Indian girls, both working in multinationals and three foreign students. She works part time as a model with a photographer at Juhu, who pays her for stray photo jobs.

The cinema hall is the best place for her to do “business” without raising eyebrows. The pickings are good, Rs. 3,000-4,000 a day. Movie theatres are the safest, it seems. Wilma says each time she’s been approached by an usher while in the act with a client, she claims they’re “a couple” and that’s it!

“A little I shout and he go away. After all, izz my life and I want private, right? India needs to be modern,” she says with a distinct hint of contempt.

There is a distinct nexus between foreign nationals arriving in India, particularly Mumbai, and a spanking new form of trafficking—one that eludes the law for all the wrong reasons. Local guides maintain that a huge number of female foreigners arriving to India would “do anything” to act in a Hindi film, particularly the song and dance sequences of a Bollywood make.

Police, however, continued to ignore the small fry and opt for the bigger catch for obvious reasons. So ignoring the streets and theatres, there have been high-profile raids in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore in which a lot of girls from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and European countries have been arrested.

It was alleged that these girls travelled to India on tourist visas and were involved in the flesh trade for high-end clients. Delhi Police last year unearthed such rackets in the Greater Kailash, South Extension and Chhattarpur areas. This formed the basis of an Indian directive that all Ukrainian women between 15 and 40 should be screened with extraordinary care when they apply for a visa to India.

Following this, a group of Ukrainian women gate-crashed the Indian embassy in Kiev, tore down the tricolour and threw it on the ground to protest the directive that, per se, seem to reek of bias but was probably well-intended. There had been a string of raids in the past involving Russian women but to screen a selective lot—and one from a particular region—bordered on discrimination. And, that’s a tag that any democratic state, particularly so the world’s largest, wouldn’t want at any cost.

In 2009, an Uzbekistani woman and a Bangladeshi man were nabbed by the Rajkot police in a trap laid to bust an ongoing sex trade racket in a city hotel. The man lived in India on a visitor visa under a false identity and traded foreign girls. Shankar Misra alias Mohammed Jahangir Hussain Safiullah was nabbed red-handed with Uzbekistan’s Rigina Marthaminibaiva from Hotel Ravi Palace in Rajot’s Sadar Bazaar, said police. Fluent in Gujarati, Saifullah had booked a room under a false identity. Acting on a tip-off by the commissioner’s office, a trap was laid and a dummy customer sent to Safiullah who sent Rigina for Rs. 4,500.

In the room, police nabbed both and booked Safiullah under section 5 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 taking Rigina as a witness. Apparently, Safiullah first visited India in 2004 for a hotel management course. He worked at Hotel Yash in Karanpara for a while, and after 2007 had visited India more than 15 times. Each time, he visited different cities, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar and Bhuj among others.

Rigina told her interpreter she was married with a son and needed financial assistance for her ailing parent. Her cousin Nargiza in Delhi had promised her a job in a shopping mall but sent her to Safiullah instead.

On the heels of the Ukrainian episode, in an attempt to salvage the situation, the Union home ministry shot off a directive that says if a probe reveals the woman did not come to India or did not indulge in crime of her free will, the state government should not file a charge-sheet under the Foreigners Act and other relevant laws. Also, steps should be taken to withdraw the case so far as the victim is concerned. Foreign sex workers were otherwise booked for immoral trafficking and under the Foreigners Act.

“Immediate action may be taken to furnish the details of such victims to the Ministry of External Affairs… so as to ensure that the person concerned is repatriated to the country of her origin through diplomatic channels,” read the directive.

Also, in a half-hearted attempt, the ministry conveyed to the states that immediately after a foreign national is apprehended on charges of human trafficking, a detailed interrogation and investigation should be carried out “to ascertain whether the person concerned is a victim or a trafficker.”

“The victims and the persons actually involved in human trafficking should be treated differently by police. This is in line with the SAARC Convention which advocates a victim-centric approach.”

It goes on to say, “If the investigation reveals that the person is actually a trafficker, he/she may be charge sheeted under the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act and the Foreigners Act and due process of law should be followed.

“In order to ensure better conviction rates, prosecution should be based on documentary, forensic and material evidence. State governments are advised to encourage the law enforcement agencies to investigate the cases in a manner that they are able to build fool-proof cases against the traffickers, so that convictions can be guaranteed.”

The decision taken “with the approval of the competent authority” throws up a lot of questions again. Who will carry out the investigation and will it be conclusive in nature? Ideally, an investigation is carried out by police and examined legally in a court of law before it is ascertained whether the person in question is a victim or trafficker. How can police themselves conclude whether it’s a victim or trafficker?

The ministry directive gives the police directions to “outrightly release the person concerned and repatriate her to the country of her origin”. Whether it is bowing to international pressure or swayed by the need to boost the nation’s image, failing which tourism industry may take a bashing, is not clear. For locals, where prostitution is concerned, it’s the law of the land, for foreign nationals the law is interpreted differently. They’re to be deported to their home states.

Apart from tourism, India’s most-talked-about industry, Bollywood, has its share of foreigners. With every second movie song having a host of foreign nationals shaking a leg or two, it’s not surprising to find tourists making a beeline for the film industry to grab a role, if not for the moolah, then for kicks. Working on a tourist visa is illegal, a fact that is ignored considering that the industry may not want to “import” foreign extras and incur additional costs just for a song. Incidentally, each time a local political party takes up the issue and makes a noise about the practice, the entire film industry rises in unison to support the studio or production house in question.

Extortion or simply stalling a legally valid processes is wrong but then the processes should be legal and the stalling done officially as a rule by the public servant in question.

“I’ve been to Bollywood on three occasions but have not got any role. I don’t mind even a teeny-weeny one,” says Netherlands-based accountant Nichole unaware that “Bollywood” represents an industry and that she may have visited a film studio instead. That didn’t dampen her spirits as, within the next few days, Nichole managed to grab a tailor-made role of a “foreigner” sitting at a cafĂ© having coffee for a motorcycle commercial in a make-shift set at south Mumbai’s Fort area.

“I even got paid Rs. 3,000 for it,” said an excited Nichole who will be hiring an agent to look for work “properly”. Nichole, on a tourist visa, overlooks the fact that she cannot be working.
That doesn’t worry her. “Everyone works for an extra buck”.

“I’ll get myself a good role and make some money while on my trips here,” she says confidently. And, like her friend Istane, she’ll “work and travel all over India”. Evidently, just about everyone across the world knows that the law on visa rules here is rather lax.

A lot of foreigners, especially East Europeans tend to move to India to escape the harsh winters and tight finances. Here, they are ensured a job as a Bollywood extra by the day and bag a good deal along the way. A deal could include sexual favours for business associates or government officials.
Immigration officials maintain that of the 50,000-odd Indian tourist visas granted in the central Asian countries of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan every year, nearly a tenth are being used by those in the flesh trade.

Horse-cart owner Salmanbhai makes a cool Rs. 30,000 on a good night by providing contact details of foreigners to prospective clients dropping by his cart for a ride in the about-to-be-extinct Victoria.
“Hamaari rozgari abhi kuch mahino mein bandh hone wali hain. Ye ghode nikal denge to kuch na kuch to karna padega na,” he says. It’s a matter of time before a public-spirited campaign to save horses leaves the Victoria owners jobless. This doubles up as an alternative, at least for now.

So, when a businessman sits in his ghodagadi for what looks like an innocent ride along the Gateway of India stretch, he clinches a deal with Salmanbhai for a “firang” for a price and delivers a token amount. Salmanbhai drops him off at his hotel and then calls up the firang who lives in a hotel room in the vicinity, picks her up and drops her off at the client’s hotel. The ride costs Rs. 500 and Salmanbhai makes a swift Rs. 1,000–a fraction of the Rs. 20,000 deal he strikes for the “firang”.

Mumbai is in constant need of dancers and artistes for its entertainment industry. And, with the state on the backfoot, as is so evident with the directives in place, there’s little holding back the foreign influx. The law takes a backseat.

So, there’s a surge in “parlours” and “spas” with Thai girls offering beauty services while getting acquainted with clients and “socialisin” by night, not an offence so far, at least if the Indian Penal Code is followed strictly.

The police continue to stop them while moving about the city, check on their credentials and question their credentials but not stop the trade. “All they want are a few bucks,” says Bangkok’s Fae Nikki who feels that the law in India is very strict. “Why, they even come to raid the spa and check on our work off and on,” she says.

Each time Fae goes out by night with some “new friends” she made at the spa, the cooperative housing society’s neighbours “eye her suspiciously,” as if she has “committed a crime”.

“Even the police stop our vehicles and ask for identity cards and details of where we’re travelling, staying, working and all,” says a frustrated Fae. Says it wasn’t that way when she lived in Andheri. But moving to Colaba has made things worse.

“India needs to get relax the law,” feels Fae. “We should be allowed to have some fun,” she says. Back in Thailand, though prostitution is illegal… there is the “Entertainment Places Act of 1966” which is “a modern law regulating massage parlors, go-go bars, karaoke bars, bathhouses and similar establishments.”

Incidentally, under this law the establishments are required to be licensed. While it does not permit prostitution, it allows for “service providers” and “bath service providers,” differentiated from regular, non-sexual service staff.

Back in an , there are massage parlours where clients arrive and choose a woman from among many sitting across separated by a glass wall. They go into another room where they “bathe and massage customers”.

Fae Nikki “makes one good friend” every day at the spa where she works— and offers her number asking him to call her after 9 p.m. Work is over around 8 p.m. She gets back home, freshens up and leaves to meet her “new friend” at a restaurant nearby. For the first few days, they meet at a restaurant and then, once familiar, she calls him home where he’d arrive with alcohol and gifts and stay till late at night.

Most cooperative housing societies tend to turn a blind eye when dealing with Thai girls who usually live in groups of four or five. The owner is only interested in the rent and the society in the non-occupancy charges he pays.

The girls provide group sex and services to select clients at “room parties”, which explains the loud sounds that “disturb housing society neighbours” all night. So, after a point when a lot of Thai girls disturb the society over and over again, the spa sends them packing, saying they’ve left the country and gets a fresh lot in again.

This time, by the time they’re settled and have made their friends, they move out of the flat and into another. So, with the constant shuffling and shifting of girls from one spa to another at a distance, sometimes in a different suburb in the city, there’s always choice and a fresh lot for the taking.

Asking the city police for statistics and records of foreign national working in the city is like asking for the moon. There are no details. It’s a disturbing vacuum at a time when India is known to attract paedophiles and offenders like Duncan Grant who blend in with the locals owing to police inaction and apathy.

In Andheri’s Lokhandwala, there’s a host of seedy production houses, makeshift PG accommodations providing a host of foreign sex-workers with middle-men and customers by the dozen. Most girls arrive on a tourist visa, without a work permit. They continue to violate visa rules by modelling or acting as extras in films.

Sadly, this issue of foreigners acting illegally in films hasn’t been tackled. It’s the studios that are culpable for employing foreign nationals acting or performing without the legal paperwork in place.

Concurrently, the foreign national herself must be arrested and charged, or else deported, as the home ministry would have it. The element of deterrence is simply missing. Protests by Shiv Sena or Maharashtra Navnirman Sena are swiftly categorised as political.

There’s another, rather niche escort service, that offers “girlfriend-like experience” and “an absolute delight” at rates ranging from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 5 lakh per night all over Mumbai and Delhi.

Foreigners are much in demand here. Mena from South Korea who travelled to India in 2006 found herself attracted to the fast life of Mumbai, particularly at a time when the going wasn’t as good back home.

Incidentally, then more than 15 per cent of South Koreans lived below the poverty line. She moved into a studio apartment in Pune with her Indian boyfriend who introduced her to modelling.

When she moved into the party scene she tried cocaine and acid. Her boyfriend moved on and left for Delhi. Soon after, it was a dizzying ride for Mena who would “go with anyone” who’d buy her the next shot. She began to live in with a rich peddler so she could get her fix on time without having to beg or steal. For months on end, Mena “used” and “used” till she almost lost her marbles. “Then, I thought I’d take charge. I decided to be an independent escort. Why should I pay a cut to someone else?”

So, she went for a rehab programme for a few months, moved into her own apartment off Linking Road and began a new life. Within days of advertising in a local newspaper, she got calls from Indians and foreigners alike. A few hectic nights later, she was all sorted for a few months.

“At first, I was a little apprehensive how it would be but soon things settled down. It’s a lot better than having to sleep for drugs,” she says.

When it comes to clients asking her about personal details, she lies quite smoothly. “I give them what they like to hear. I could pass off as Japanese. Telling anyone I’m from Korea is asking for trouble. They want to know where Korea is and so forth,” says Mena.

As she tries to photograph herself at Marine Drive while dangling a stray pup in another hand, she has the usual suspect biting the bait. A well-heeled gentleman volunteers to take her photograph and… gets chatting. Mena drops a kiss on the pup’s head before leaving him on the ground and walking off with her new friend telling him all about her life and family in Japan.

No longer is the world’s oldest profession restricted to red-light areas. They’re almost defunct these days. It’s spread right across the city. Gone are the days when Foras Road, Falkland Road and Kamathipura were “pinjaras” where minor girls, forced and tricked into the profession, sat with their feet in chains— tied to small boys who’d go everywhere with them, even to the bathroom, lest they escape.

Now, consent isn’t an issue at all. Indian law does not declare prostitution, per se, to be illegal. A string of related activities such as owning or managing a brothel, soliciting in a public place, street walking or pimping and pandering are crimes.

So a lot of sex-workers were nabbed for soliciting on the streets; brothel-owners caught for owning and managing brothels, and pimps for pimping over the years. That is, till the profession adapted to the law of the land. Escort services across the nation provide the perfect ruse for the initiated. Why, they even advertise in respectable print media, which earns taxable revenue. And, so do the spas and parlours permitted by the civic body and allowed to operate freely by city police.

They’ve found innovative ways of reaching clients, in cinema halls and tourist zones, all right under the all-powerful nose of the Mumbai police.

A senior police officer says, “There is little we can do when it comes to foreigners. Each time we arrest someone, there’s pressure from the state and the embassy to release them. Why? If we do arrest foreigners and jail them, won’t you say that why are we feeding them for free? Like Kasab and Abu Jundal, they’ll be rotting for years in our jails living off taxpayer money.”

There has to be a multipronged approach, legal experts feel. For one, the usual suspect avenues must be identified and the loopholes plugged.

The city police are more than happy to forget about the investigation and deport foreigners instead of charging them with prostitution or trafficking. The Union home ministry’s directive is a heaven-sent opportunity to ease their workload.

“Mumbai runs the risk of turning into a hub for sex tourism considering the sporadic surge in sex-linked activities by way of parlours, spas, escort services and others. The law has not been amended in sync so the surge in activities will only create problems in future. Raids of the Dhoble sort weren’t exactly new to the city but made headlines owing to the shock value they offered and the way they were received by sections of the media. We can’t afford to live in a state with contradictions,” says the police officer. “Licensing procedures and visa regulations have to be in place for a city’s law and order machinery to function. If we fail to follow the law, there’s bound to be a conflict… one that we’re creating ourselves.”

Barging into a high-profile spa is asking for trouble as it might ruffle feathers among political bigwigs supporting the space. With the media ever ready to report on an excess, it’s likely to be controversial. The police, too, are guilty of ignoring the real issue. It isn’t as if they registered actual figures by way of arrests or raids earlier till date, that were now brought to naught with the home ministry’s more recent directive to let them be.

The law on selling sex has to be revisited and reviewed in the altered times. The statute is so distanced from reality that it won’t work. Also, the state needs to make up its mind on foreign nationals. Does the home ministry directive run the risk of being interpreted as a means for visitors to come here on a travel visa and work either as a masseur; or an extra in a song, or to sell sex freely during her stay and, in the worst case, when apprehended, simply return home?

The law should fulfil the purpose of deterrence. Simple deportation prevents but doesn’t ensure deterrence. Failure to reprimand a felon is asking for a repeat. It also sends the wrong message to the world at large.

At the city level, the mushrooming of massage parlours needs to be monitored by the city police which will have to take the initiative. In sex trafficking and the sale of contraband drugs, there’s the risk of sensitive intelligence being gathered and the black money generated is almost always used for terrorism.

The home ministry’s capitulation to the Ukranian women means weaker penal action in the future.The riots of August 11 at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan have shattered the image of the Mumbai police whose personnel were attacked, molested and robbed of their weaponry by a mob. For the state to go soft on a foreign target simply because she’s not Indian reeks of bias.

The directive contrasts sharply with the Indian Penal Code’s Section 2, according to which every person shall be made liable to punishment under the Code, without distinction of nationality, rank, caste or creed, provided the offence with which he has been charged, has been committed in some part of India.

A foreigner who enters Indian territory submits to the operation of Indian laws and cannot plead that he did not know he was doing wrong, as the act was not an offence in his own country.

And, although the Indian Penal Code does not provide any exception in favour of any person from the jurisdiction of criminal court, such a statutory exemption is available under Article 361 of the Constitution. It provides no criminal proceedings whatsoever shall be instituted or continued against the President or the Governor of a State, nor shall a process for his arrest or imprisonment issue in or from any court during his term of office.

(This article first appeared at Fountain Ink)

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