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August 4, 1997


Farzana Versey

If money could speak...

Pramod's illustration We have talked enough about the social, psychological and moral ramifications of prostitution. It is time now to talk of economics. There is money to be made in the red-light areas.

It is moolah that makes the world tick around here. The rates are high for everything except the women on sale. They are the only commodities amenable to bargaining.

So caught up are we in conducting imaginary debates on prostitution as social service versus the woman's dignity, that we just don't think of the seemingly mundane reality that keeps the business going in the first place.

The madam makes a neat profit of 50 per cent per girl. On a rough estimate of average business, this would amount to Rs 150. With ten girls in a room, the daily earning come to Rs 1,500. This is not all, for no madam worth her weight would run an establishment on such a low scale. Most of them own whole buildings with anything from 10 rooms to 80.

In fact, one of the latter has become some kind of case study in Bombay and, one should think, can provide our MBAs with something to chew on regarding marketing strategies and brand positioning. This building generates Rs 400,000 a day by just being there.

But, as any entrepreneur knows, handling a big establishment can become a bothersome proposition, what with rising overhead costs. So, some of the gharwallis (madams) have become very enterprising. They rent a sprawling flat for about Rs 10,000 a month, get their classier girls to polish up their act and rake in 25,000 bucks every night. If they are honest in their dealings with the girls, they make Rs 12,500 for themselves. For no sweat at all.

The police make far more money by looking the other way than they would by doing their assigned jobs. Many of them are on back-slapping terms with the pimps, and they don't even wait to shed their uniforms before displaying such camaraderie.

It is said that, of the income generated from conventional red-light zones, the amount paid in hafta (bribes) works out to a hundred thousand every night. A lowly constable can pocket Rs 6,000, if he is on duty every day of the month. When these figures were given to a sub-inspector, his laconic comment was, "If you saw the living conditions in the police quarters and took into account our working condition, you'd be more sympathetic."

Knowing the hard-nosed tactics adopted by the vultures makes even a cursory attempt at understanding difficult. The operations are so wide-spread and organised that there is a money-lending racket to keep it moving, come what may. When we hear stories of girls being forcibly brought by some relative or neighbour, there is a tendency to treat it as one more negative aspect of life. Just one more inhuman face of humanity.

But the selling of these nubile girls is not always on open-shut case. There is an auction where the highest bidder gets to pluck the flower. Sometimes, in the frenetic pace, the bidder forgets to check his wallet. Which is where is saviour comes in.

The money-lender charges 15 per cent interest. The conditions are based on the borrower's personal standing with the lender, or whether he can provide names with of sound connections. But, sometimes, nothing at all is required. The money-lender knows his way around. Chances are a borrower may turn out to be a known gharwalli who drives around in a chauffeur driven car and so taken up with the newest entrant that she decides to buy her on the spot. The money-lender makes his killing on such fragile whims.

A category of people who can keep their distance from the fifth, and yet earn their living off it, are the doctors.

They work long hours and many keep their clinics open till well past midnight, treating clients and prostitutes alike. No one has ever bothered to find out the credentials of these doctors, not even the health authorities who are busy waving condoms in the air.

Many of them are making more that they deserve. The quacks rule here. They display obscure degrees like RMP, knowing that no one will question them. For most doctors, this works out to a steady income. Besides, there are certain special rules. For example, an injection is a must, even if it is not required. Prostitutes here equate the syringe with some kind of divine intervention which will work its magic and cure them. "Let us face it, many of them suffer from diseases which are not really curable. We can only provide temporary relief, we cannot change their ways," says one doctor.

If money here could speak, it would be too breathless for words.

Illustration: Pramod

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Farzana Versey