Prostitution per se is legal in India but it is caught in a web of laws that makes sex workers vulnerable to police action in red-light districts. (HT File Photo)

Police must not interfere or take criminal action against adult sex workers “participating with consent”, recommends a Supreme Court panel looking for measures to ensure better work conditions for prostitutes and protect their rights.

The panel, set up in 2011, will submit its report in March.

Prostitution per se is legal in India but it is caught in a web of laws that makes sex workers vulnerable to police action in red-light districts, where they ply their trade on streets or in dingy brothels.

“Whenever there is a raid on a brothel, since voluntary sex work is not illegal and only running the brothel is unlawful, the sex workers should not be arrested or penalised or harassed or victimised,” the panel says.

It recommends deleting the offence of “soliciting” under section 8 of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), 1956, saying the law is highly misused by enforcement agencies. Soliciting or seducing for the purpose of prostitution is punishable with six months in jail and a fine of Rs 500.

Police are often accused of crossing the limit in their efforts to enforce anti-trafficking laws, clamping down on prostitutes and clients having a liaison conducted in private with consent between the two.

The committee, headed by senior advocate Pradip Ghosh, also has the mandate to suggest measures for rehabilitation of sex workers who wish to leave prostitution so that they can live with dignity.

The majority of India’s estimated 1.2 million prostitutes are forced into the trade by crushing poverty.

The panel proposes an elaborate mechanism, including rehabilitation and providing alternative livelihood to prevent re-trafficking of former prostitutes.

Observing that police view sex workers “differently from others”, it says these women are lawfully entitled to equal protection. “When a sex worker makes a complaint of criminal/ sexual/ any other type of offence, police must take it seriously and act in accordance with law,” it recommends.

The panel suggests amendment to the law that says any person above 18 living on the earnings of prostitution faces imprisonment of up to 10 years.

No action should be taken against a prostitute’s parent, partner or children living on her earnings, unless it is proved that they forced her into the trade, the committee says.

To stop victimisation of trafficked woman, the panel recommends sending sex workers caught plying their trade near a public place to a correctional home, instead of putting them in jail. The duration of the stay should be reduced from five years to one. Prostitution in a public place is illegal.