Lured to India’s red light district, and a lucky escape
Every year, many girls are trafficked out of Bangladesh with the promise of a better life abroad, only to end up in the underbelly of cities like Mumbai and Pune, India. An investigation by The Daily Star takes a look into this dark world that involves brokers and law enforcers on both sides of the border. This is the first part of a four-part series.
In the bustling heart of Pune lies Budhwar Peth, India's third largest redlight area tracing back to the 18th century and home to around 110 brothels.
Bangla music from a shop selling tea and biscuits mixes with the horns and the chatter. Dotted amidst the shops that line its cramped narrow lanes are many old wooden door frames, some coloured powder blue or green but most left in their original shade, all with cracks that tell their age.
Standing in front of these door frames are hundreds of women, some old, some young, dressed in bright saris and skirts, chatting and laughing.
From the busy lanes, these door frames look like they lead to dark nothingness. One of these frames leads to a long corridor where the only light source is the lamp lit in front of photos of Hindu gods.
The corridor, that can barely fit two people, leads to a narrower corridor with three doors on both sides. The doors on the right lead to identical looking rooms with a single metal cot with a bare mattress and a pillow. The cot is flushed to the walls on three sides with only enough space to close the door on the fourth side. On the left, exactly opposite to each door is a small squat toilet.
The only light source in the space is the yellow light bulb in the corridor.
The exterior wooden walls of the rooms are tilting and the yellow oil paint, reflecting the light from the bulb, is peeling in many parts.
In rooms like these live some 800 to 900 commercial sex workers, and over 20 percent of them, numbering around 200 to 250, are Bangladeshi girls and women, multiple sources within rescue networks told The Daily Star.
Every year, many girls are trafficked out of Bangladesh with the promise of a better life abroad, only to end up in the underbelly of cities like Mumbai and Pune, an investigation by this newspaper has found.
Many Bangladeshi sex workers, once victims themselves, now serve as brothel managers, perpetuating the vicious cycle. They employ fellow countrywomen, who later become traffickers responsible for bringing new girls from Bangladesh into the clutches of these brothels.
Pakhi (a pseudonym), a Bangladeshi woman, runs her own brothel.
The outfit is modest by any standards -- a rented flat where she guides five girls, earning Tk 12,000 per day through their sex work.
During our multiple visits to this brothel in May this year, we saw that whenever any customers came to a girl, the other girls gave them space and waited outside.
Fifteen years have elapsed since Pakhi, then a young 20-year-old woman from Jashore, left her home with her husband. The path to Budhwar Peth was not of her choosing.
What Pakhi thought was a blissful arranged marriage took a dark turn when she discovered her husband's gambling addiction, which plunged the family into financial turmoil. Her husband suggested they cross the border to Mumbai, where he promised better opportunities awaited. Naively, Pakhi agreed.
"We crossed the border by paying Tk 10,000 to brokers," she recounted of her journey in 2008.
But her husband and the brokers had a different plan, and Pakhi soon found herself sold to a brothel in Pune for two lakh rupees, about Tk 2.67 lakh in today's Bangladeshi currency.
The initial days were fraught with despair, as escape seemed impossible and Pakhi was not paid a single penny during this period, except for some tips from the customers.
"I only received cosmetics and food thrice a day," said Pakhi, while sharing the experiences. Food was basic meals of lentils, rice, and seasonal vegetables.
Pakhi explains that whenever any girls came to the brothel, they were trained to speak different languages so they could blend seamlessly into the Indian environment, concealing their Bangladeshi identity to avert law enforcers' eyes.
"I can now speak five to six languages -- Hindi, Marathi, Karnataka (Kannada), Gujarati, and Bangla," Pakhi says.
Two years later, she had "paid off" her "debt" and was allowed to start receiving payment for the sex work. At the time, she had to pay a percentage to the brothel manager for using the space and security.
Pakhi then had a new dilemma -- as a young sex worker stranded by her husband, she was unable to return home. She had no money and no valid documents. Compelled to stay back, she started a brothel of her own, she says.
She managed four other girls, who were victims of trafficking like herself and subsequently freed from the brothel.
"We are now saving money to ensure an identity in India," she says.
Over the years, Pakhi has sent as much as Tk 10 lakh to her parents back home.
THE JOURNEY: VICTIM AT THE BORDER
Only 60 percent of the 4,096 kilometre long Indo-Bangla border is fenced.
The Maheshpur border of Jhenaidah is notorious for its easy passage in and out.
Data from Border Guard Bangladesh's Maheshpur Battalion reflect the vulnerability of this point. Between January 1 and May 15 this year, as many as 75 individuals were apprehended here while attempting to enter India from Bangladesh. There were 22 women and six children among them.
The previous year, this unit apprehended 1,186 people trying to enter India from Bangladesh.
They also arrested 53 traffickers last year, and three more in the first four and a half months of this year.
But it is only a fraction that gets caught, with most walking in and out without detection. It is so easy that on May 15 this year, Joly Khatun, a survivor from Narail, had simply walked back across the border when our correspondents were coincidently at the border and met her.
Joly was returning home after escaping from a brothel in Mumbai where she had been entrapped for three months.
The girl was trafficked across the same border in the same way, by simply walking across the unmarked, unfenced geopolitical line.
It really is that simple -- multiple survivors have told The Daily Star that they were made to walk and were trafficked before they knew it.
The person trafficking Joly was a woman she met while working as a ward assistant at a clinic in Narail. The clinic paid her a meagre monthly salary of Tk 3,000 and the woman offered her a job in India with a lucrative monthly salary of over Tk 10,000.
Joly eagerly followed the woman, boarding a battery-run auto-rickshaw from Muchipol in Narail to Jashore, then a bus to Belemath Bazar in Jhenaidah.
There, they were joined for lunch with two other men. This was actually the house of a carrier. Dozens of people gather in the house and stay until the carrier gives a green signal that the border is now clean and can be crossed.
After lunch, they were joined by a group of eight to ten other girls and three to four men. In broad daylight, the entourage walked across a deserted area across the border. An hour into walking, Joly came across a railway station.
At the station, Joly found people talking in Hindi and realised that she already left Bangladesh.
As she realised her situation, fear crept in, and Joly's questions were met with threats from the woman.
"Keep quiet or I will hand you over to the police," the woman threatened Joly.
From Kolkata to Mumbai and then Aurangabad by train for the next three days, Joly found herself in a house with 60 to 65 other Bangladeshi women.
Their lives were controlled by an Indian woman.
After three days, the Indian woman informed her that she was sold for 4.5 lakh rupees.
Every girl was given separate rooms. Joly's room had a bed, dressing table, and had a small washroom in the room. They were fed a miserable meal of watery lentils and rice thrice a day.
"They put out cigarette butts on my thigh, my neck, and my back when I refused to agree on their proposal. Then they locked me up in a room and did not give me anything to eat for the next two days," Joly told The Daily Star at the border showing the injury marks on her neck.
"They did not stop even after it. They used to torture with an empty stomach, so, I had to agree on their proposal," added Joly.
Amidst the darkness, Joly found solace in a Bangladeshi girl, whom she affectionately called her sister.
It was through her newfound ally that Joly reconnected with her mother and hatched a plan to escape. Joly's mother sold their land and sent Tk 1.95 lakh to the Indian woman holding her captive.
Joly tied a scarf to the rails of her second-floor balcony and climbed down. Her "sister" had prepped her with a cell phone and 1,500 rupees for the journey. Once out, Joly first took an auto-rickshaw to the railway station at Aurangabad and went to Lokmanya Tilak Terminus station in Mumbai. From there, Joly took a train to Kolkata.
The "sister" had fixed a broker ahead of time. Joly met him and he helped her through the rest of the journey to the border.
After crossing the Indian border, two Bangladeshi brokers received her and kept her for a night in their house. When Joly came out of the house in the morning, the Border Guard Bangladesh at the Maheshpur border of Jhenaidah intervened and rescued her.