Thursday, 30 June 2011

Condom Madam

How one sex worker reformed a brothel in Sangli by counting condoms collected in a bucket

Brothels are dirty places. In Kamathipura, India’s most famous red light area, you will find torn condoms and gutka packets strewn around, paint peeling off damp walls, and posters of C-grade films ripped strategically at the breast or crotch of the actress. There are few condom-vending machines. Then you notice the women—cigarettes dangling from their betel-red lips or between thin fingers with long nails, midriffs exposed, chests protruding from tiny blouses, and a blazing arrogance writ large on their faces. In the brothels of Kolhapur, pigs and women dot the periphery of the road; the pigs scout through the drains, the women scout for customers.

Sangli is clean. It begins with the railway station, which has been awarded the second cleanest station’s title in Maharashtra. A five-minute auto-rickshaw ride takes you to Dusshera Chowk. Through clean roads canopied by huge trees, you arrive at a small junction. A clean swept road from there leads to Sangli’s red light area. Pink doors on pink walls flank the street. There are no open drains with floating condoms in them. A decorative rangoli adorns the doorstep of every house. A few young girls stand next to a door, waiting for customers. Most others are busy with the chores that keep any housewife busy every morning—washing utensils and clothes, running after children, cooking meals, and taking dried clothes off the clothesline. Another lot are languidly grooming themselves—some women are combing their hair, some are painting their nails, and some are pouting their lips with a tiny mirror in one hand and lipstick in the other.

Until about 20 years ago, most people in this place walked with hands covering their nose and mouth. Today, there is a general aura of calm.

A deep female baritone rings out from behind one of the lattice windows. There are a few sandals outside the door. You take yours off,  notice the walls covered with portraits of young girls, and then your eyes move left towards the source of the voice. Her stout body sitting on the bed takes most of the space, with a hand rubbing her knee. A frail boy sits next to her, oscillating between reading a book with pictures and watching a dance show on TV. The lady signals a plastic chair to be brought, and, after the pleasantries, a girl wearing a neatly pinned sari brings in tea. “She is my daughter. I have so many daughters here. Rafiq is my only son,” says Bandawa Madam alias Amirbi Sikander Sheikh, rubbing the boy’s head. The girl standing with the tea tray beams. Another girl comes to greet me with a namaste, while two others peep in from the door.

Suddenly, Rafiq gets up and runs out with his book, calling out another boy’s name. And then Madam says quickly, “His mother died of AIDS. She hardly used the condom, despite my telling her repeatedly. Then he was born, and he had AIDS too. I send him to school but haven’t told the teachers yet. But I do not want any more AIDS in Dusshera Chowk.” The end of the sentence is almost a growl. “Today, my girls will refuse any customer who will not wear a condom.”

Two decades ago, when Madam was just 18, she eloped with a boy, but he was too scared to marry her. She couldn’t go back to her parents and so she decided to stay on in Dusshera Chowk, doing sundry jobs. Eventually, she became a sex worker. Seven years into the business, she saw contemporaries suddenly falling ill, developing blisters in their mouth and on their tongue, and then becoming just a memory sooner than expected. “The fat girls suddenly became sticks. Then someone said it was AIDS. We had never heard of it before. We never thought that our work could kill us,” she says.

She began to work with Sangram, an organisation in Sangli promoting awareness about HIV and AIDS. That’s where she first encountered the condom. “I thought ‘What kind of weird sticky rubber is this?’ But then, since we were getting it free, I decided to try it,” she says, “I eventually understood that it was for my protection as a sex worker.”

She took it upon herself to teach other girls how to use condoms. And also the customers who strode in. “Sex workers saw condoms as a hurdle not just to the sexual act, but to their business,” she says, “The girls would argue that asking the man to wear a condom was as good as showing him the door and not earning anything. They thought that the pleasure of sex would be lost if a condom was worn.”

Since most of the girls were from next-door Karnataka, they spoke only Kannada. Talking about condoms in Marathi or broken-Kannada was not really helping her get the message across to other sex workers. So she had an innovative idea.

“I bought two huge plastic buckets and put them in an intersection of the lanes. I told the girls to throw used condoms into the buckets. Around midnight, I would ask the girls about the number of customers they’d had. Then, I would thrust my hand into the bins, pull out the used condoms, and count them. If it did not tally with the number the girls had told me, it meant someone did not get her customer to use a condom. I just had to call out once, and the errant girl would apologise. If they address me as ‘Maa’, then I have every right to scold them.” She is the boss of about 200 girls now, most of whom are from Karnataka’s Devdasi tradition, with tiny white beads on a red cord around their necks identifying their lineage.

Madam’s efforts took three years to come good. Today, none of the women will ‘bithao’ (seat—for sex) a customer who refuses to wear a condom. But are the men willing to oblige? “Not if they are very drunk,” says Madam. So she does what a good mother will do for her daughters—she screens the customers. By 6 pm, Madam settles herself under a big tree at the entrance of her territory. Every prospective customer has to pass her screening—essentially, an assessment of his level of inebriation. “No man comes to a brothel unless he has had some alcohol,” she says, “I look at a man and I can tell how drunk he is. If he is too drunk, then obviously he won’t be able to wear the condom. Then I send him back, even if that means shouting and pushing him away. For the rest, I ask if they are carrying condoms, though my girls are well stocked in any case.”

Many a times, girls have had to show the door to rich customers who try offering more money for condomless sex. “My man asks me, ‘Why do I have to wear the condom even after being with you for so many years? Don’t you trust me?’ I say that this is the way it needs to be, because I do not want him to bring in diseases from his wife,” she says.

At some point, Bandawa split from Sangram. “I am my own boss; I didn’t like being instructed on how to do work anymore,” she says. In 2004, she started the Vaishya Mahila AIDS Nirmulan Kendra, and had it registered two years ago. She doesn’t reveal how large her family is, or how many condoms are found in the bins every night. “There was once a raid in 2007 because cops thought we had minor girls here,” she says, “Several of my girls were in jail and their children were hungry. I had to sit on a fast until the girls were released. Society will not remove poverty, but when we want to earn a living, they say we are bad.”

Over at Sangram, Bandawa is no longer a popular figure. Meena Seshu, director of Sangram, calls her a publicity hound. “She wants to hog the limelight, and is way too friendly with the cops,” says Seshu, “She wants to be a domineering force among her girls, and keeps saying that Dusshera Chowk is the only clean brothel in Sangli. But she forgets that it was Sangram, 20 years ago, which undertook the work of communicating with the girls of Gokul Nagar—the other brothel in Sangli—to ensure cleanliness and hygiene. We get 350,000 free condoms a month from the government, but Bandawa also gets her girls to sell condoms to customers. That is strictly against the principles of Sangram.”

What no one disputes, however, is that Bandawa is committed to her girls. She is also, in her own little way, trying to give her sex workers a measure of literacy. The effort began with the girls asking her to teach them how to identify the buses they would take to their hometowns in Karnataka. For about three years now, 10 sex workers have been teaching about 50 of their illiterate sisters to read and write. From 4 pm to 6 pm daily, they use a backboard outside a tea stall to impart maths and alphabet lessons. “The girls can now read bus destinations and do a little maths,” says Madam, “But I want them to learn how to speak English.”

After school, it is time for business. Time to dress up, apply make-up, solicit customers, strike deals, provide sex, collect money, solicit men, strike deals, provide sex… the day’s business ends with used condoms going into the buckets. A man has now been hired to collect the used condoms from the buckets, for which the girls pay him Rs 10 each every month.

Apart from this monthly fee, the girls shell out Rs 20-25 every Diwali season to give their tiny home-cum-workplace a facelift. “I get all the houses painted pink at Diwali. Why shouldn’t we?” says Madam, “The whole world looks down upon sex workers, although sex is such a basic thing. People see such violence against women, they see them raped, but society doesn’t want to help girls who come here out of poverty.”

Inside the rooms, the curtains are colourful and frilly, the bedsheets clean, and the walls plastered with posters of Bollywood actors and actresses. Ornate photo frames hold photographs of the girls’ families or of them in pleasant poses. Sharing space with shining steel utensils are bottles of nail polish, lipstick, bangles, packs of bindis, combs and mirrors. The cement floor is shiny and smooth. Every morning, the entrance to their house is swept, and water is thrown to settle the dust before white rangoli floor patterns are made outside the door. Some are simple designs with dots, others are elaborate. The white particles merge with the dried dust by late noon, when the girls begin to head out for school.

Quite a few women in Dusshera Chowk can read and write today. They send their children to schools in the vicinity. Geeta Osmani’s seven-year-old daughter studies in a Kannada-medium school. Geeta was a Devdasi who came to Dusshera Chowk when she was 18 and illiterate. “After having worked for 11 years here, I have made enough money to educate my daughter,” says Geeta, who likes to watch her doing homework, “She needs to study her mother tongue, and so I have enrolled her in a Kannada-medium school. Next year, I will send her back to my village to complete her studies. We women are happy here, but I want her to be as far away from my place of work as possible.”

Madam sees literacy as an obvious tool of empowerment. Yet, it is the condom that holds the key. “No wife dares tell her husband to wear a condom, but my girls can tell another woman’s husband to do so. No mother tells her son to wear a condom, but we teach boys how to become men. Who is more empowered—the housewife or us?”

It’s time for me to leave. I thank Madam, and she asks me to come again. And then, for the first time, her voice turns mellow: “I want to start a playschool for the smaller children. Can you get some help for the children?”

Friday, 3 June 2011

Broadcasting Dantewada

(This was first published in the June 2011 edition of Himal Southasian magazine.)

Earlier, what went on in the jungle remained in the jungle. But no longer.


On 27 March, Anil Bamne gave a missed call to a Bangalore number from his mobile phone. Within ten seconds, he received a call back and, moments later, he had recorded a news report detailing how children less than five years old had been going hungry for the past five months in Bahaud, a village in Chhattisgarh. Bamne’s report described how the children were sitting throughout the day in their aanganwadi – a government-sponsored childcare centre – playing with mud, while the food packets meant for them had never arrived, beyond a few bags of puffed rice. Two weeks after Bamne’s report, food materials reached the aanganwadi. A government programme officer later told a journalist that, although he had been in his position for three years, he visited Bahaud for the first time, thanks to the news story.

This and similar reports have been made possible due to a mobile-phone-based ‘citizen journalism’ system called CGNet Swara. Here, CG stands for Central Gondwana, referring to the area that takes in parts of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh; swara means voice. Despite this geographical designation, since February 2010, CGNet Swara – a free service – has offered a journalistic platform to any caller anywhere in India.

This is how the system works. If a caller has a story to report, or simply wants to hear the news, he or she gives a missed call to a Bangalore-based server number – 08041137280 – and waits to receive a call back. The caller can then choose to listen to reports recorded by others, or record their own piece of news, or even a song or bit of poetry. After a few hours, the recorded news is aired for the world to listen, either over the phone or via the organisation’s website, The gap of a few hours allows CGNet Swara’s editor to check the credibility of the reports, a critical element when callers are leaving significant information about, for instance, violence or corruption. In the year-plus that it has been operating, CGNet Swara has become a potent source of news for journalists and a major tool for activists. It woke up the Chhattisgarh government to realise that there is indeed a malaria crisis in the state, for instance, when 47 malaria deaths were reported from just one of the state’s 18 districts.

The project is the brainchild of Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist who developed the service while he was on a Knight Journalism Fellowship that began in 2010. A native of Chhattisgarh, Choudhary says that he had watched the shift in Adivasi support from a negligent government to the Maoists. ‘Our system wants the tribals to give up their oral culture and be textbook educated,’ he said. ‘The tribal population in central India numbers nine crore, and we do not have a single AIR [All India Radio] bulletin in a tribal language. There is a major communication gap here.’ Choudhary continues: ‘In the end, the tribals have no one to talk to. Who will then listen to them? The Maoists, of course.’ Choudhary says that he sees journalism as one of the least democratic sectors in India.

News For Some
The burgeoning Adivasi allegiance to the Maoists surged when the government signed several new agreements with mining companies that would permanently disenfranchise communities of their land – some 300,000 people in nearly 650 villages, according to estimates. As Maoist activity rose, riding on the back of this growing public frustration, Choudhary says that he observed a simultaneous rise in important news stories going either unheard or, at best, wrongly reported and misinterpreted.

‘The Central Gondwana region is categorised as among the most backward regions of the country,’ he says. ‘The media reports emerging would mostly reflect only the official version. And we have missed the community radio bus. Today, news all over the Internet is legal, but news on the radio is illegal. I know of many men who can make a radio for just 100 rupees, but that has been made illegal. The government wants us to buy transmitters from only licensed vendors – who, of course, sell it at a high price. How then can news be for everyone?’ While Choudhary says that newspapers were a ‘revolutionary medium’ many years ago, ‘Today we need to go beyond the newspaper and make use of the mobile phone, short wave radio, the Internet and oral traditions. In that respect, Swara is a mere experiment in democratising the process of broadcasting news.’

In early 2010, he began training 33 people on how to use CGNet Swara. At that time, the participants were mostly working in Chhattisgarh on various community issues. ‘During the second day of the workshop,’ Choudhary recalls, ‘I realised that asking them to write the news and then speaking it aloud lacked in spontaneity. The tribal communities have an oral culture, which is their essence.’ So, he let the participants ‘speak on their own, asking them to narrate like they would have done it before their family and friends. The idea was to lower the entry barrier into journalism.’ The first batch would talk about Swara wherever they went, and that is how the news trickled in.

Today, the Swara website is overflowing with reports of various stripe, in the primary area of Central Gondwana and beyond. The stories cover, for instance, non-payment of NREGA wages, illegal stone quarrying in Rajasthan, women digging their own bore well in Andhra Pradesh, the push against unfurling of the Indian flag in Assam for Republic Day, Santhali men and women dancing in sub-zero temperature, public anger against new coalmines, anti-liquor campaigns, children’s hopes for their schools, and more.

Given his journalistic background, Choudhary says, he understands the importance of credibility. As such, he has focused on building a wide network of sources who can vet and verify the news posted on Swara. In mid-March, for instance, he began receiving reports of arson, murder and rape taking place by Salwa Judum in Tadmetla, Timmapur and Morpalli; some 300 homes were gutted by fire, while three women had been raped and at least two men murdered. Choudhary says he sat on each of these stories for a week so they could be verified. But almost immediately after these reports were posted, journalists from prominent newspapers began to highlight the ongoing stories. Eventually, the incident led to the superintendent of Police of Dantewada, S R P Kalluri, and the collector, R Prasanna, to be transferred for neglecting to check the abuses; the state government has also ordered an enquiry into the matter.

New Voices
Prior to Swara, Choudhary had tried to connect Chhattisgarh through the Internet, by moderating a Yahoo! Group where people would send news about Chhattisgarh and discuss the issues. However, that still did not cater to Adivasi communities. After all, India does not have a single Adivasi journalist from central India. When Swara was born, the network of these people who had been connecting over the previous eight years began to help Choudhary to verify facts and vet the stories. ‘If there was a news item about a certain incident in a village in Bijapur,’ Choudhary says, ‘I would call up the most reliable person there to check for such an incident.’

Clearly, Swara’s verification process leans on the robust wall of goodwill and the keen outlook of all concerned citizens, however, not necessarily Adivasis – a fact with which Choudhary is clearly uncomfortable. Eventually, the idea is for Swara to become system with many more ‘citizen journalists’, and with Adivasi youths themselves acting as moderators. For now, for instance, Choudhary has to rely on just one person, Himanshu Kumar, for translations into Gondi. (Kumar is an activist who had lived and worked in Dantewada for 17 years before he was thrown out of the state for raising questions about the Salwa Judum.) Choudhary says he now intends to conduct workshops with Adivasis from different parts of the country, who would be given basic training on reporting with an eye to becoming moderators for multiple language channels on Swara.

Still, for now Swara’s numbers are impressive, if nascent. Since its inception, more than 31,000 calls are reported to have been received (both to report and to listen), about 17,000 of which have come in since the beginning of this year. About 800 news reports have been published during that time. Choudhary says that he has received some opposition to Swara’s work, as well, though he brushes this off by saying that the project is fuelled by the possibility of shaking up callous government institutions. ‘Waking up the authorities and getting them to do their job right,’ he says ‘that’s what gives the people the hope that their basic needs can be fulfilled.’

~Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.