It's a weeknight and the clock on platform No 1 and 2 of Santacruz Railway Station reads 11.30 pm. You’d expect the buzz at the station to have died down a notch. Not so for a group of women who have been standing at the skywalk that connects the station to S V Road. They start walking down to the platform. And when a train from Churchgate, heading to Vasai, chugs in, they don’t hop on. They wait for the commuters and start soliciting them for sex.
Commercial sex workers at the Santacruz platform near the police booth. Pic/Satyajit Desai
Mumbai has got used to spotting commercial sex workers on its roads. You will find them, pimps in tow, on beaches, skywalks and arterial roads of localities such as Andheri and Bandra near dawn. Tourist spots like Juhu Chowpatty and Colaba Causeway are popular haunts as is Bandra Linking Road. The group will disperse the second a police van is spotted. Which is why, spotting them on railway platforms - which are under constant CCTV surveillance, and secured by the Railway Police Force (RPF) and the Government Railway Police (GRP) — was startling. What is of further concern is that not only were the RPF and GRP personnel present on the platforms, they were also seen interacting with the women.
The reporters discovered that there’s a systematic network in place to keep the operations running smoothly. Besides a group of about seven sex workers, ‘support staff’ tends to hang around the station, keeping a watch out for anyone who might pose a threat. If someone is spotted with a camera or video phone, word spreads, and the group swiftly disperses.
Additionally, auto rickshaws are roped in to provide a quick transport facility. Drivers wait outside the station to take customers to lodges where a deal has already been struck. A commuter, who travels the route daily, said the rickshaw driver not only carries out the task of ferrying but also ensures the safety and timely return of the sex worker. “The drivers are paid per round trip or a night charge according to the business done on a particular night. They also act as bodyguards if a customers harasses the sex worker,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Santacruz Railway Station, July 15, 2015, Platform No: 1 and 2, Time: 11.35 pm
As soon as the clock strikes 11.30 pm, a commuter who travels on the route daily, tells us sex workers aged 20 to 40, pour on to the platform from the skywalk and foot overbridge. When sunday mid-day visited the spot at 11.45 pm, nine women outside the ticket window of platform No 1 (western side) were seen.
This platform is connected to the Santacruz (W) skywalk, making it easier for the group to disperse if a complainant forces the RPF or GRP personnel to act. Since the skywalk doesn’t fall under Railway jurisdiction, no action can be taken by the railway police. A visit to the spot the previous night revealed that there was little chance that railway personnel did not know of the workers’ presence. That night, a group of men were harassing some of the women, who later complained to GRP officials. The officials warned off the men. By this time it was 1.30 am and the two women took a Churchgate-Borivali train back. On Wednesday, the reporters posed as customers to inquire about the business. This is how the conversation unfolded:
SMD: How much will the one in the pink charge?
Sex worker: Rs 1,500.
SMD: Where will the room be?
Sex worker: It’s nearby.
SMD: In the market?
Sex worker: Yes.
Vasai Railway Station, July 16, 2015, Platform No: 1, Time: 12.15 am
There were more than 10 sex workers on the southern end of the platform.
Sex workers at the Santacruz railway bridge. Pic/Atul Kamble
SMD: How much do you charge?
Sex worker: Rs 1,000.
SMD: Where will we go?
Sex worker: To a hotel.
SMD: Police ka locha toh nahin hai nah?
Sex worker: Nahin.
SMD: How far is it?
Sex worker: Five minutes.
SMD: Can you charge less?
Sex worker: No. We keep Rs 500, and the hotel takes Rs 500. Here, after 11 pm, the hotels shut shop. Earlier, their rate was Rs 300, now it’s been hiked. Will both of you go?
SMD: Yes, both of us.
Sex worker: It is Rs 1,000 each.
SMD: Koi problem hoga kya?
Sex worker: Nahin, mera toh roj ka dhanda hai.
SMD: We will return in a bit.
Sex worker: Jaldi aneka.
When sunday mid-day returned to the platform, we found the sex workers sitting a few meters away from the desk where GRP officers were on duty. The conversation continued with a different sex worker:
SMD: How much do you charge?
Sex worker: She told you, Rs 1,000.
SMD: Dono ka final bolo.
Sex worker: Arre, yaar. Dono ka Rs 1,000 bhada jayega.
SMD: Till when are you here?
Sex worker: Once I leave with you, I will head home.
SMD: We’ll get back to you in five minutes.
RAILWAYS CLAIMS IGNORANCE
I don’t know if what you are claiming is correct. I will have to check with my local subordinates to establish the authenticity of your investigation. If any such activity is going on at the station, it is the responsibility of the GRP to investigate and take action. RPF will provide assistance, but GRP needs to act.
– Udai Shukhla, Chief Security Commissioner, Western Railway