Thursday, 29 December 2016

Demonetization and Sex Trafficking in India (Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 28 Dec 2016)

We have been reading in the newspapers how demonetization has curbed trafficking in India. Maybe that's one side of the story. What anti-sex trafficking activists have been hearing from the prostituted women in brothels makes for the bigger story, which somehow the media in the country has missed. This is the story of how demonetization has increased the vulnerabilities and exploitation of not only the prostituted women but also women from communities living on the boundaries.
I accompanied Delhi Commission for Women chairperson Swati Maliwal and her team to the brothels of GB Road in Delhi yesterday - brothels housed in buildings with no clue about owners; because in paper, the ownership of these buildings still remain with people who died decades ago. She was on an inspection with representatives from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, whom she wants to conduct a survey about the illegal constructions inside the brothels.  
Climbing up narrow staircases stained with paan stains which took one to an equally narrow and dim corridor, and through that to small rooms without ventilation, we visited about five brothels late in the afternoon. Most women were from Nepal and Andhra Pradesh. A few were from West Bengal and I found one from Assam. They have the same story to tell. Abandoned by families or sold by lovers and uncles and aunts. In two brothels we also found kids with their mothers.
"Because it is afternoon now, you see these women having their lunch and not too many people around," Delhi Commission for Women member Farheen Malick told me. "When we visited the brothels in the night some time ago, about 100-150 men and women came out of each brothel. Can you imagine that?" 
It was indeed difficult to imagine that number of people in those brothels. But as we took a tour of the brothels, I realised that it might be true. A little room, in each brothel, where ordinarily about six people can sleep comfortably had about 12 to 15 women standing there with their faces covered as we entered. And this little room had several doors and secret passages that led to other little rooms. When we went, the women were having their luch. So the smell of food filled the stale air inside the brothels along with the stench of tobacco.
And in all the five brothels we visited, the prostituted women revealed that they still have customers. That has not stopped even with demonetization. What has happened though is that they are being paid much less than before. One woman also admitted that some customers are still paying her in the old currency. And when I asked her what she did with it, she said she sent it home, to her village in Andhra Pradesh. She said she has two daughters and a son, who live with her aunt in the village.
A few of them did admit that times are difficult with demonetization, but that they will have to stick it out as they don't know of any other way to earn money after all these years. Most of them came to GB Road in their teenaged years. And they have been living here since. I also spoke to the Nayika of three brothels. The Nayika is a woman in her late forties or fifties who came to GB Road in her teens and has spent all her life here. She is now the caretaker of a brothel and that's how she lives by at this stage of her life. The nayikas in all the three brothels displayed great loyalty to the place. They said with exaggerated sadness how business is down these days and that most of the women have gone back home.
"It is the common experience of anti trafficking activists all over the world that at times of crisis - be it economic recession, natural disasters, or ethnic conflicts - trafficking increases," tells me anti trafficking activist Tinku Khanna, who has been with Apne Aap Women Worldwide since 2002, working with abolitionist Ruchira Gupta towards ending sex trafficking through field and policy interventions. "We have to remember that trafficking is not about a single entry and exit point; it is a chain. Immediate payment of money is not a concern for the trafficker, who knows that the money will be recovered sooner or later," she adds. Apne Aap has been working with prostituted women and girls from red light areas in Bihar, West Bengal and Delhi as well as with women and girls from certain caste communities who are at risk of being trafficked.  

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

In the Land of Abolitionists - Forbesganj (Bihar)

For about ten days now I have been in Forbesganj, a small town on the Indo-Nepal border, in Bihar. It is beautiful and very peaceful. But behind this serenity, lies the history of an important abolitionist movement. This small town is where abolitionist and feminist organiser Ruchira Gupta started her work in 2002 - to end trafficking for sexual exploitation. She founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide with this aim, which began to work with the Nat community in Forbesganj, a community which suffered (and still does) from inter-generational prostitution. Ruchira realised that it was not only poverty but the lack of choices for people in this community which pushed them towards prostitution and families lived off the sexual exploitation of their women as their men brought their own women customers.

A movement can bring results only when there are leaders from the community, is what Ruchira has always emphasized. And in Apne Aap, that is what she has tried to do all these years with the support of her fellow abolitionist Tinku Khanna. In this photoessay, I try to paint a picture of beautiful Forbesganj and its fiery abolitionists.

Ruchira's family home in the Jagdish Mill campus at Forbesganj which has been converted into an Apne Aap centre. 

The beautiful family house of the Guptas

The beautiful family house of the Guptas that has been converted into Apne Aap guest house :)

The Apne Aap office within the campus

Outside the gates

This is Meena. She used to live with her grandmother in Bhutan.When she was a little girl, some men sold her and sent her off to Katihar. She stayed at a brothel there for some time, gave birth to a girl, but managed to escape and flee to Forbesganj. She couldn't bring her infant daughter with her though. It was much later that she rescued her daughter from the brothel, the daughter now a young girl, with the help of Apne Aap activists and the police. Her story has been well documented in a short film by Lucy Lui and The Sibbs (Negan Raney Aarons and Colin Keith Gray). This story has also been captured in The Town of Love by Norwegian writer Anne Ostby. For the last several years now, as an Apne Aap activist, Meena has been mobilising girls from vulnerable communities in Forbesganj to attend school and the Apne Aap community centre at Uttari Rampur. Meena has put around 12 - 13 traffickers from Forbesganj and Katihar behind bars till date with the support of other Apne Aap activists and the police.  

This is Fatima. A human rights defender with Apne Aap. She is from the Nat community, where girls are subjected to inter-generation prostitution as a form of livelihood. "I was married at the age of nine," she tells me, "When I had no idea what marriage is or what a husband is. I saw that my mother-in-law used to buy girls and put them into prostitution. A few of my sisters-in-law were also into prostitution. But I saw how they suffered and lived in fear of my mother-in-law. I didn't like it, and I helped them escape. I have been beaten up harshly every time I helped a girl escape. My mother-in-law and husband were very crude. Once, my mother-in-law bought a girl at Rs 1,00,000 and I helped that girl flee. That was when she told my husband to put me into prostitution. She said, 'Isko dhande mein dalo, issi se paisa nikalo' (put her in the trade and get money out of her). But it was when they put a little girl called Afsana into prostitution, my blood boiled. I was very fond of Afsana and would never part with her. My mother-in-law asked me to go home for a few days. And I was so excited because they never let me go home. When I came back, Afsana clung to me and cried that she has been put into prostitution. That was it. I rebelled against my family!" Fatima has so far played an important role in putting several traffickers in Forbesganj behind the bars, including the most dreaded Gainul. She has been with Apne Aap since 2005. She tells me that today, in the Nat family in Forbesganj, only those who have been in prostitution from before are still in it, no girl from the family is anymore put into prostitution, nor is any girl bought by a Nat family to be prostituted. People like her and Meena and the other Apne Aap activists in Forbesganj have a huge role to play in this.  

This is Kalam. He is an Apne Aap activist and is from the Nat community. "We were a nomadic community," he tells me. "We didn't own land and used to travel from one place to another. Often the eldest daughter of the family was prostituted and the other girls were groomed for marriage. So the daughters who were groomed for marriage were never put into prostitution." Kalam, like Fatima, struggled within his family and the community to end the custom of inter-generation prostitution. Today, he is a role model for the boys of his community. He is a lawyer and encourage community members not to groom boys for pimping their own women. He has also played an important role in putting traffickers behind the bars, and along with Fatima, Meena, Tinku and Ruchira conducted several rescue operations in and around Forbesganj.  

In the middle of our documentation exercise at the Apne Aap Forbesganj office, social activist and livelihood design expert Samhita Barooah interacts with Kalam, as he tells us his story. Kalam told us that today, out of the total 50  households of Nat community in Forbesganj, only 10 are into prostitution.   

I pose with the human rights defenders Fatima and Meena and Apne Aap social worker Sanju:)

Now, Forbesganj is a small town and has this quaint little railway station. The whole set up is like, what my friend Samhita (in the picture) says, Malgudi Days.    

This pretty woman agreed to pose for me :) And if you look at the right hand side of the photograph, you will see Madhubani paintings on the wall of the station, a project that Apne Aap had undertaken in 2012 - 2013. 

This is the market place right next to the railway station. On tho other side of the railway station is the Apne Aap centre at the Jagdish Mill campus.

A pretty shop right where the market ended. Fascinating stuff, and such awesome prices!
We walked past the market and came to this beautiful spot. Sultanpukhor, Forbesganj.

This is right next to Sultanpukhor. The British used this whole geographical area, which is now Forbesganj, for indigo cultivation. Forbes, a British administrator, was sent to this place to oversee the cultivation. What you see in the picture is Forbes's house, where some other family has moved in long long ago. Forbesganj is named after Forbes. And this is where Forbes lived.

Next to Sultanpukhor is this little shop where we rested for a while and chatted up with the owners.

While returning from Sultanpukhor, we came across this church that was established in 1873.

As we walked around, we came across a few old buildings like this one. Should be a contemporary of the Jagdish Mill campus.

This is the beautiful Kothi Hat area by the canal. One can take a long walk here and also cut across the golden paddy fields.

A walk by the canal at Kothi Hat. The canal is on one side and gorgeous golden paddy fields on the other.

We met a few beautiful and friendly women in the paddy fields. They told us that they are daily wage labourers and work in the 'zamindar's land'. They told us that they are paid Rs 50 per day while for the same work the men are paid Rs 200. 

Street food at Forbesganj. But one should also try out Restaurant Jyoti, which is not very far from the railway station, on the side of the Jagdish Mill Campus. They really serve good food. 

A family run shop right in front of Jagdish Mill campus. One can get everything here from milk to pulses to toiletries.

Now that we are in Forbesganj, of course we have to make a trip to Nepal. This gate is at Jogbani, the last point in India, after which there is a tiny patch of no man's land, and then Birat Nagar in Nepal. In Jogabani, one can see houses where parts are both in India and Nepal. So, if the entrance opens in India, the house is in Nepal. And we also saw a few sheep grazing at no man's land. Fascinating place this is with so much hustle and bustle! Birat Nagar in Nepal is just 40 minutes away from Forbesganj.

We are finally at the local market in Birat Nagar, Nepal, which used to be the largest industrial hub of Nepal at one time. It is Nepal's second largest city and mainly a commercial centre.

Souvenirs at Birat Nagar

Note: All these photographs are in natural light. Not photoshopped :) 

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Spaces and people in Berlin and Munich. July 2016.

So finally I got to go to the city where Nadeem spent more than two years of his life. Berlin. Where our dear friend Monika lives. Where Zunnoon, the child Nadeem spent most of his time with while in Berlin, and has loved dearly, has grown up. And it proved to be as good as he always told me. In fact, once there, it didn't seem like it was my first time. I had the feeling of being there before. Strange, I know. But this is how I felt, like I knew its corners and bends and streets and buildings from before.

In Berlin and Munich I got to see some interesting places. And very inspiring too. Thanks to the Visitors Programme conducted by the Federal Foreign Office, Germany that I was a part of. Sharing a few pictures and stories from my trip.

My kind of place. This is at the garden restaurant of the urban gardening project, Prinzessinnengarten (Princess Garden). This is a 6000 marea of wasteland near Moritzplatz, in the district of Kreuzberg, which was transformed into an ecological and social urban farm in 2009. It not only grows agricultural products, but has also become a space for a new kind of urban lifestyle where friends, neighbours and other interested parties can work, learn, rest and play together.

Garden restaurant, Prinzessinnengarten (Princess Garden)

With my colleagues from the programme at Prinzessinnengarten (Princess Garden)

Murals at Prinzessinnengarten (Princess Garden)   

This is at Agora Collective, a network and co-working space at Kopfstrasse that facilitates the encounter of ideas and resource development among people and projects. It has bright office spaces, large art studios, silent zones and an awesome cafe.

Young people at the co-working space, Agora Collective.

Now this is at Tempelhof, Berlin, which used to be one of the major World War II airports in the country. The airport ceased operating from 2008 amidst controversy. Now it is a huge open space where families come to picnic and a group of inspiring women negotiated with the government and are using a patch of land here for community gardening especially for refugees and middle class people to grow their own veggies, etc.  

Relaxing at Tempelhof community gardening site :) The interesting thing is, all plants and veggies at Templehof are grown over the ground in containers. Digging the ground is not allowed because there might be mines that would go off since it used to be an airfield during World War II. 

Hotel Piep for little friends with feathers :) Tempelhof.

At Tempelhof, they are growing anything anywhere! Old boots, mugs, footballs, shoes, etc.

The inspiring women who run the community project at Tempelhof.

View from the United Services Union office at Paula-Thiede-Ufer.

Welcoming refugees! Sight from the United Services Union office at Paula-Thiede-Ufer.

Now this is where I went for lunch one day. It used to be a hospital formerly where the Squatter's Movement started. Since then it has been transformed into a cultural space.

"The squatters’ movement that started in the late 1970s was motivated by concerns both political and personal. On the one hand, the movement attracted those who wished to protest the lack of affordable housing and the negative effects of postwar urban renewal. On the other hand, however, it also appealed to some young people who were primarily interested in escaping both parental control and the burden of paying rent."  (Source: GHDI

There are beautiful sculptures all over Berlin and Munich. These two are near the Friedrichstra├če station (railway station) in central Berlin (Berlin Mitte). 

A group photo with my colleagues from the programme at Brandenburg Gate.

"The Brandenburg Gate, a monumental gate built in the eighteenth century as a symbol of peace, is Berlin's most famous landmark. During the Cold War, when the gate was located right near the border between East and West Berlin, it became a symbol of a divided city." (Source: 

The Quadriga, Brandenburg Gate. 

The bronze quadriga of victory crowning the gate was created in 1793 by Johann Gottfried Schadow. The four-horse chariot is driven by the winged goddess of peace. 

"In 1806, when Berlin was occupied by French troops, Napoleon ordered the quadriga to be taken to Paris. After Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the quadriga was triumphantly taken back to Berlin, and was turned into a symbol of victory: an iron cross and eagle were added to the laurel wreath. At the same time the square near the gate was renamed Pariser Platz and the statue on the quadriga was now called Victoria, after the Roman goddess of victory." (Source:

And then finally, I got to see where Nadeem lived while he was in Berlin. Thanks to Aunty (Monika's lovely mom) who drove us down to Wedding.

Aunty and I at Lynnarstrasse (in Wedding), where Nadeem lived. And where Hitler committed suicide with his wife of a few hours, but long time companion, Eva Braun.

Monika and I right in front of the building where Nadeem stayed for more than two years. So, you see, historically how important this trip has been for me :D :D 

Very close to the building is this fantastic place where Aunty treated us to the most amazing pizza I have ever had in my life and some awesome beer from the brewery the place owns! 

This is the Central rail station in Berlin

At Berlin Mitte, where I was staying, was this awesome Sushi Bar at rates much cheaper than anywhere in Delhi (for sushis). I loved the sushis as well as this young girl who had just arrived from Vietnam a couple of months ago and helped out her uncle at the restaurant. Her uncle had started this place long long ago. She wanted me to teach her English. So after the sushi and some great Berlin beer, I gave her a half an hour English class :D 

This is one evening when I went to spend some time with Monika. We walked up to her apartment at Kreuzberg, which is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood. She took me to a Vietnamese place somewhere nearby for great food :) The picture here was taken by me just as we were about to enter the area where she lives. Would anyone believe me if I said that this place was primarily constructed and still houses lower income group people?  

A corner in Monika's house. A beautiful handcrafted piece she had picked up, I think, from Afghanistan.

And here we see Monika's baby (the plant), resting in her bedroom, whom she has to give a wash every once in a while in the bathroom :D

And when Monika is not researching/teaching/presenting papers at Max Planck, this is what she does. Be out on the balcony, lounge and celebrate the gorgeous evening sky ;)

Now this is in Munich. At Marienplatz.

Marienplatz is a very old town centre, and is the heart of Munich.

A pretty shop at Mareinplatz

Interesting things one gets to see here.

Our guide was excellent. She took us through the main town centre, giving interesting history about the place.

She showed us this. A symbol that Hitler had put up on the tower of the Old Town Hall in Munich. After Hitler's death, this symbol was taken off. Interestingly, it is in Munich where Hitler had found supporters when he was starting out with his political ambitions. He founded his Nazi Party here.

A walk inside a mall at Marienplatz

The blue trams that charmed me in Munich :)

My short story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018

My short  story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018 Right in the middle of the sprawling Nakhasa Bazaa...