We are organisations based in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand working for the past 30 years to end human trafficking. Today, we write this letter on a matter of grave concern about the lives and livelihoods of residents of the Ganga Jamuna area in Nagpur, Maharashtra.

Please sign this petition to #UnsealGangaJamuna and share among your networks-

On 11 August 2021, around midday, barricades came up in the Ganga-Jamuna area of Nagpur city, immediately affecting the lives and livelihoods of about 1,200-1,500 sex workers residing and working there. No announcement was made, nor was there any hint that such a dire restriction of mobility was intended. On 13 August, a police order dated 12 August issued by the Lakadganj Police Station, was pasted in the locality, invoking Section 144 Cr Pc prohibiting the assembly of four or more persons, from 11 August to 9 September 2021. There is no valid reason for invoking the powers based on alleged complaints by citizens about “illegal sex trade”. Neither is there any evidence that “ordinary citizens” are facing any insecurity or risks while traversing this area nor that public peace is being threatened.

The notice pasted by the police officers on the face of it shows that it is a document fabricated post-facto, and an antedated order. While the police claim to have invoked 144 on 11 August itself, the order is dated 12 August and pasted in the locality on the 13th. This indicates that there was no intention of invoking any such provision for there existed no such urgency. Instead, the order appears to have been issued to cover up dictatorial orders of cordoning off the locality, thereby putting all sex workers with their children and families in an illegal prison. The stated justification for such high-handedness has no basis in fact. There is no evidence to show that Covid-19 has been on rise in the area. There is no such information with the municipal authorities or the health department. This shows that a false case is being drummed up to exercise power under section 144. It appears that some other interest is being served under the pretext of public convenience. The act of the police is  in violation of fundamental rights, and completely illegal.

The emerging articulation and direction given to sex worker rights in International and national law and policy is clear and progressive. The following are recognised as principles in India and globally through advisories of the central and state governments, court judgments, government and court appointed committees, international treaty body observations and recommendations, panels, UN agencies amongst others.

1. Sex work must not be conflated with trafficking which is a criminal offence. The definition of sex work as “the consensual provision of sexual services in a commercial context” has been accepted globally by UN agencies, and also the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India. The offence of trafficking has been very clearly defined under Section 370 IPC in 2013 as per the Criminal Law Amendment The continued conflation between sex work and trafficked victims’ harms both sex workers and the victims of trafficking who are in need of assistance.

2. For years, sex workers have highlighted the continued attempt by abolitionists to forcibly raid and rescue them and incarcerate them in rescue and rehabilitation homes against their wishes. These organisations have used the current anti-trafficking laws to incarcerate adult women in sex work for long periods of time in rescue homes, a practice that has been called out by the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, the CEDAW Committee, and recently by the Bombay High Court. Despite this, the practice continues unchecked and NGOs continue to forcibly rescue women against their consent disregarding clear guidelines. The Constitution of India guarantees every citizen the right to be protected from arbitrary arrests, violence, and coercive action. However, in the case of sex workers this remains a distant dream. The brutality of forced raid operations robbing sex workers of their dignity has found no remedial action and deterrence under law.

In 2015, a panel appointed by the Supreme Court of India recommended that the provisions of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1956 including clauses referring to brothel keeping, living off the earnings etc, must be read down in the context of consenting sex workers.[1] (15th interim report in its entirety)

3. This pernicious practice continues to deter sex workers from accessing rights and entitlements, and from advocating for their inclusion as informal workers in the labour economy.  A research “Raided” released in 2018 has highlighted the ineffectiveness and as well as human rights violations caused by  the raid and rescue strategy. As many as 77% of the women in the study returned to sex work, despite facing brutal raid and rescue operations. (p 56). Many women narrated how they were forced into greater situations of vulnerability due to debts after being picked up in raids and forced to pay police and lawyers for release, or because their families had taken huge loans from private money lenders when the women were incarcerated by NGOs. (p 80) [2]

4. Sex workers are entitled to support during the COVID pandemic. On 23 July 2020, the Department of Women and Child issued a circular calling on district administration and WCD to support sex workers and those rescued under ITPA making a clear distinction between the two groups.-“with reference to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown since March 2020, we want to inform you that, women who have been rescued under ITPA and those who are in sex work are finding it difficult to survive and take care of their families…. The women in sex work (Veshya Vyavsay) and the women who have left sex work have lost their income generation options. Due to lock down they are not able to get other jobs either which leads them and their families to starve. You should provide free ration and all essential services to the above-mentioned women.”

Denying sex workers, the dignity of being workers, is to expose them to violence, deny them their rights and access to justice, and eventually rendering them vulnerable to exploitative practices. Organising as informal sector workers gives them the much-needed recognition, dignity and space to claim rights, access government support and access justice when faced with violence.

We affirm that the autonomy and dignity of women whether sex workers or victims of sexual violence are non-negotiable, and no organisation or individual can arrogate to themselves the authority to decide their destinies. We stand by the NHRC advisory that acknowledges those in sex work as workers and citizens entitled to welfare measures and access to schemes for migrant workers in these pandemic times.  It is this recognition of sex workers as informal workers that will help to stop the conflation of sex work with trafficking and ensure that appropriate assistance reaches the victims of trafficking. This move will help sex workers and law enforcement agencies to identify traffickers at the grassroots without the sex worker having to fear for her own safety and well- being. As NGOs working on the forefront of anti -trafficking in coordination with law enforcement, we have partnered with sex workers individually and as collectives, who ensure a strong response on the ground. We have evidence and narratives of these practices and would be happy to provide them at request.

We, signatories, and allies therefore call upon the Nagpur Police to withdraw this ex parte order and restore normal life for ALL ordinary citizens and residents of the Ganga Jamuna area.

[1] 15th interim report, Consolidated list of amendments to the Immoral Traffic  (Prevention) Act, 1956 recommended by the Supreme Court Panel, 2015

[2] Raided, how anti -trafficking strategies increase sex workers vulnerability to exploitative practices, March 2018. http://sangram.org/resources/RAIDED-E-Book.pdf