The stillness of the summer night is broken by the whoosh of trucks racing past. In the darkness beyond the highway, lights blink and waver. It is the people of Jetpura, Madhya Pradesh, using their mobile phone flashlights to announce that they are open for business. Nearby, at a cluster of hutments, girls, barely in their teens, are waiting on charpoys laid out on the highway. A truck or two screeches to a halt and the driver approaches a charpoy to negotiate a deal, between Rs 100 and 200 per customer.
The Centre has recently brought in an ordinance to enhance the jail term for rape of a minor girl below the age of 16 and award the death penalty for the rape of under-12 girls. Madhya Pradesh was the first state to enforce the penalty in December 2017.
But law doesn’t reach this highway cutting through the Neemuch-Mandsaur-Ratlam districts of Madhya Pradesh, or protect the girls lined up along it every night. Belonging to the Bachhada denotified tribe, they are pushed into prostitution as young as 10, facilitated by a well-established caste-sanctioned practice.
In December 2017, a member of the Bachhada community filed a petition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, seeking an end to child sexual exploitation. According to the petition, the number of underage Bachhada girls pushed into prostitution is around 1,500. This is apart from another 1,000 girls, aged 18 and above, in a female population estimated to be about 7,000 in the 80 deras of the three districts.
Two decades ago, when she was pregnant with twins, Lakshmi of the Bachhada dera in Rupawali village in Mandsaur resolved that should they be girls, she would never let them enter the sex trade. But she knew that she could not rely on the man who was her children’s father. She took the only other option she had. When her girls turned 13, she married off both for a “bride price”, paid by the groom, of Rs 3 lakh each.The marriage of one ended within six months as her husband would get drunk and beat her up. “My husband’s family took the case to the jati panchayat (caste council). They ruled that I had to pay my in-laws Rs 13 lakh, four times the amount they had paid. This is usually done to ensure that women don’t end a marriage, no matter what,” says Gauri, her daughter.
Again, the choice was very limited. “If I didn’t pay up, my family would have been ostracised,” she says. She left her husband’s home and turned to deh vyaapaar (flesh trade). Now 19, she has paid off Rs 11 lakh over six years of sex work — till she stopped recently. The one-room house, where she lives with her mother and brother, bears testimony to the life of the child-woman. A yellow teddy bear lies between framed pictures of Gauri, a wall has a poster of a wide-eyed baby, a heart-shaped velvet pillow is tossed on the bed. She points to a tiny window-sized door leading to an adjacent room which has nothing but a cot. “That was meant for work. For a maximum of Rs 200 per customer, I would get about four to six customers every day,” she says.
Six months ago, Rekha Chouhan, 40, a former sex worker, convinced Gauri to sit for her matriculation exams. She now attends coaching classes so as to appear as a private candidate. If Gauri manages to complete her matriculation, she would be among the less than 1 per cent of her community in Mandsaur to have done so. Of the total Bachhada population of 4,645 in the district, official data shows that only half are listed as literate. Even among this literate population, 99.30 per cent have dropped out before matriculation. Merely eight people hold government jobs, as anganwadi or health workers or police constables.
Between the ages of 10 and 12, Bachhada girls are either groomed to join the trade or married off for a one-time bride-price from the groom’s family. As parents initiate the daughters into the trade, there is often little others can do to intervene, even in cases of brutal rape.
The Bachhada deras are located outside a village, along the highway. Truckers and upper-caste men from the villages are regular customers. While the latter visit the deras by night, there is no question of them marrying anyone from the community they treat otherwise as untouchables. “Customers ban kar toh aate hain raat ko, par woh sab parde ke peeche (They come as customers by night, but all that is under the covers).” The jati panchayat also dictates that a girl who has entered the world of prostitution can’t marry a boy from the Bachhada community, in effect trapping her in the profession forever.
Another stark detail stands out. Most Bachhada deras have an unusually high number of women — Neemuch has 3,595 women for 2,770 men, Mandsaur 2,491 women for 2,154 men, while there are 862 women for 735 men in Ratlam.
Besides the fact that the women bring in money here and the fathers are absent, another reason for the high numbers is the trafficking of minor girls into these regions. Apna Ghar, a children’s home in Mandsaur, currently has 25 girls aged seven and above. The magistrate’s orders in almost all cases show that they were kidnapped and trafficked from nearby districts and states, in some cases immediately after they were born. They were then “adopted” by Bachhada families from Neemuch-Mandsaur. Surekha, 15, said one report, changed hands at the age of five years for Rs 8,000 and was trafficked into one of the deras. She was rescued two years later and continues to be at the shelter.
“The Unrecognised Rape”, a report on “caste-based prostitution” by the Madhya Pradesh-based social organisation Jan Sahas, notes that besides the Bachhadas, a few other denotified tribes such as Bhedia, Bhantu, Nat, Kanjar, and Sansi in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan also force their women into prostitution. Two decades ago, the Madhya Pradesh government introduced the Jabali scheme to eliminate the practice of prostitution among the Bachhadas. The scheme was meant to focus on education, rehabilitation, health, and awareness. But it was not until 2014 that Rs 10 crore was allotted for rolling out the scheme in Neemuch, Mandsaur and Ratlam. District officials admit that the entire sum has not been used till date.
At the Jetpura dera, , tattered rags propped up on bamboo sticks serve as bathrooms, where there is no visible Swachh Bharat toilet for most of the 70-odd households or any nearby source of water. The nearest government school is 5 km away. Rocking her one-year-old granddaughter in her arms, Pushpa says they can turn to no one for help. The only action by police is frequent raids, which only stigmatise the community further. “Humare samaaj waalon ko koi naukri nahin deta… Keede-makode samajhte hain. We don’t get any other jobs. We are treated as worms),” says Pushpa, who was formerly in the trade.
Akash Chouhan, 22, a Bachhada from Sagar Gram, who filed the writ petition in the high court demanding elimination of the practice, says that other than occasional raids and action under the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act 1956, there have been no efforts by the state to rehabilitate the community through jobs and education. “After the raids, the minor girls are taken to remand homes, their parents are made to submit a bond that they will send their children to school. The child is then returned to the parents, who push her right back into prostitution. The state is abdicating its responsibility towards such vulnerable children.”
In a reply to the notice from the high court, the MP government had, in March 2018, argued that the petition be dismissed, citing its Jabali scheme and the fact that 50-odd criminal cases have been filed since 2010 against customers and women forcing minors into the trade. What it doesn’t say is that a majority of these cases are filed under the IPC sections 370, 371 and 372 (dealing with exploitation of children) and not under the non-bailable Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).
But some change has come, with or without government aid. For the last one year, 30-odd girls from Sagar Gram, in the age group of six to 12, are being tutored by Firoj, one of the few postgraduates from the dera. The girls have also formed their own balika panchayats to counter the caste councils. Twelve-year-old Sanya, the daughter of an anganwadi worker, was recently elected the sarpanch through a secret ballot. The balika panchayat ensures that none of them drops out of school at any stage. They convene twice a month to deliberate on issues of their dera and report it in their newspaper, which they named themselves: Bhimrao Ambedkar Akhbaar.
At her house, Firoj’s sister Shruti, 22, is getting ready to leave for the night. Firoj hasn’t spoken to her in years, he says, as he blames her for continuing the work even today. Shruti recalls that her mother and aunt made her drop out of school and step into her elder sister’s shoes when the latter ran away from home abandoning her three-month-old boy. “Initially, I had no choice. Now what is the point of complaining?” she says, adding that she wouldn’t let her own daughter, now two, enter the same profession. A promise made by Lakshmi nearly 20 years ago.
(Names of all women/minors who are/have been part of the trade have been changed)