Tackling the problem of prostitution

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SUBHASHREE KISHORE,THE HINDU 11 NOVEMBER 2007

Amendment to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act 1956 is in the making for over two years. Going by the modern standards of performance evaluation, it seems the voting public are getting too little work done by their representatives. The representatives are indecisive on what steps to take.

Prostitution per se is not illegal or criminalised in India but soliciting and trafficking is. The justification for such a dichotomy is as usual safely nestled in age-old beliefs, practices and religion. The law aims to protect the victim without punishing the perpetrators. Prostitution as a means of livelihood is exploitative, repressive and inhuman.

One amendment being heavily debated is whether the client — in effect the demand side — should be punished. Sweden has had some success in bringing down trafficking when it criminalised buying sex. Britain is also considering the move seriously. The argument advanced against this in India is that it would lead to more surreptitiousness and place the victims further at the mercy of police.

Sadly the poorer (weaker) argument is that it would affect livelihood of the sex workers. Does it mean that the government is there only to wring its hands and watch helplessly as people are traded like commodities, forced into a ‘profession’ which can hardly be called that?

Amnesty schemes for tax evaders or defaulters pave the way to legalise their illegal wealth. Why not a scheme to rehabilitate these workers to help them break the vicious cycle of poverty and coercion which condemns them to a life of disease and disrespect?

The entire approach is heavily tilted towards the effect and not the cause. Instead of catering to the ‘vote bank’ minorities, we should address this community which has little voice and a lot to complain about. This is a group which cannot organise itself, burn buses or issue threats to disrupt public life. A realistic solution would be alternative employment and focused provision of basic facilities.

The high profile campaign for the prevention of AIDS can at least in part be diverted to addressing the circumstances which force hapless people into sex trade.

Prostitution is still treated as some ‘foreign’ disease whereas it is, and must be recognised as, a ‘man made’ social evil. The policy and legal framework is to treat it and hardly to root it out. We never find any political leader or public figure taking a stand asking the youth to practise restraint or fidelity. If the ‘supply’ side is too dark and difficult to control, at least the demand can be attacked.

India is blessed with stability and order compared with countries torn by civil war, political instability and the like. It just requires the administration to be committed and interventionist. But given the approach of the establishment which rushes to ban bar dancers rather than bars, maybe it is too much to ask.

We have seen governments steamroll opposition from environmentalists, workers, coalition partners when it comes to economic and political agenda such as SEZs, privatisation or land acquisition but hardly are proactive when it comes to the unfinished social agenda. We have places categorised as ‘red light’ areas beyond the reach of the long arm of the state. Perhaps we can even have areas demarcated for fake currencies, drugs, arms, antiques and so on.

The absence of social anger and condemnation despite having full knowledge of its stigma and consequences remains an enigma. Why do we hesitate to say that, in the first place, it is wrong? Society needs values and they should not be contingent on convenience, laws and individual preference. Larger social interest cannot be held ransom to individual immorality.

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