Kamathipura red lights give way to skyscrapers: Mumbai

Gentrification always tries to make street life more orderly, less messy, more suited to middle-class tastes. Recently I published stories about city ordinances in Spain and Italy that name specific activities to be banned in public places: bathing in fountains, eating sandwiches, selling sex. This story about Mumbai describes how a traditional red-light (and slum) area is replaced during gentrification, with interesting attention to shifting social alliances and ideas about the sex industry.

Red light district swaps sin for skyscrapers
Clara Lewis, Times of India, 28 November 2009

Till about four years ago, garishly painted women in glittering attire were a common sight on Cursetji Shuklaji Street, a busy road in Mumbai’s notorious red light district, Kamathipura. Once known as Safed Gully (White Lane) on account of the European prostitutes that it housed during the British Raj, Shuklaji Street was the place where, for years on end, one could find sex workers plying their trade. These days however, they’re out there not to solicit but to await the private taxis that ferry them to dance bars in the suburbs.

From 50,000 sex workers in 1992 (a statistic recorded by the BMC as part of its AIDS documentation ) to a mere 1,600 today, Kamathipura and the adjoining Foras Road are a mere shadow of their former selves. The street-facing brothels have given way to little shops vending CDs and mobile phones; there’s also a clutch of video parlours where boisterous youngsters throng to catch the latest Telugu blockbuster.

Gentrification is slowly descending on Kamathipura , like it has on many of Mumbai’s distinctive boroughs. The one-storey, ground-hugging structures are making way for dizzy skyscrapers – two, of 35 storeys, have come up on Shuklaji Street, while another two, 47 storeys each, are nearing completion. Salim Balwa, director of DB Realty, the company that’s busy making over the area, is planning several more projects here. “The space crunch in Mumbai has meant that you go looking for land where no development has happened,” he says. All the towers overlook Kamathipura.

Balwa, who’s developed 10 lakh square feet in the area and is in the process of acquiring another 3.5 lakh, is sure that he’s on to a good thing. “All said and done, the place is centrally located, and it is better than living in far-off Mira Road,” he says. The present residents, most of whom live in houses that are about 100 sq ft in size, will get 300 sq ft after redevelopment, says Balwa. And, of course, there will be a more-than-neat profit for him.

It was the twin factors of AIDS and the Maharashtra government’s redevelopment policy that played a major role in getting sex workers to move out of the oldest profession in the world and subsequently out of Kamathipura. The AIDS scare led to the first serious government intervention in the area’s prostitution dens: Dr Jairaj Thanekar, Chief Executive Health Officer, BMC, who worked in Kamathipura for 15 years to implement the AIDS intervention programme, says the corporation played a key role in reducing the number of prostitutes . “From organising raids on the Yellappa markets down south – the main source of girls for Kamathipura – to raiding the brothels, we made it difficult for prostitution to function,” he says. “From 1999 onwards, the number of sex workers started dwindling.”

When the BMC intervened, the rate of transmission of HIV was a shocking four per cent. By then a large number of sex workers had died. “Brothel owners, faced with sex workers who kept falling ill, moved them out to other brothels in Mulund, Bhandup and Ghatkopar, but procuring new girls was also becoming difficult,” says Thanekar. This and other factors – a reluctance among landlords, newly aware of AIDS, to lease out their premises to prostitution, spiralling rents, police raids, and the emergence of a new generation of financiers who got into more lucrative ventures – hastened the downward spiral of prostitution in Kamathipura.

The reconstruction wave of dilapidated buildings completed the process. “Several people were bought out by the builders,” says a brothel owner. “Gangubai Chawl on 11th Kamathipura Lane was among the first to be torn down and reconstructed into a six-storey building by a private developer. Normal households moved in.” The stigma attached to Kamathipura began to dwindle somewhat, and the newly reconstructed prostitution dens began to be put to other uses – for the last four years, businessmen have been renting out the infamous rooms to small manufacturing units. Mohammed Israr, a 22-year-old native of Bihar, who assembles travel bags for a local manufacturer, has rented 600 sq feet in a one-storey structure in Kamathipura. He pays a stiff monthly rent of Rs 12,000 for the space, but says that it’s worth the money, given the central location.

Abdul Sattar, a local pan-beedi stall owner on Lane 13, has been in the business for the last 15 years. “Earlier, sex workers’ clients frequented my stall,” he says. “There were a lot of goons and hangers-on around. Now, proper businessmen come here. It’s a welcome change, as people working in the vicinity are no longer looked down upon. There was a time when we were ashamed to tell our relatives that we lived and worked in Kamathipura . But not any more.” Adds Sadiq Ismail, who owns a consumer goods shop on 12th Kamathipura Lane, “I live in a house above my shop with my wife, three sons and a daughter. There is nothing shameful about living here any more.”

Street named desire

Kamathipura is Mumbai’s oldest and Asia’s largest red light district. It got its name from the Kamathis (workers) of Andhra Pradesh. They worked as labourers on construction sites. The neighbourhood also had Chinese residents who worked as dockhands and ran restaurants. Kamathipura was formerly Lal Bazaar, an area set aside by the British for their troops’ sexual pleasures. By the end of the 19th century, Lal Bazaar was known as a “tolerated area” as prostitution was illegal. At the time, Bombay and to a lesser extent Calcutta were the most important cities in an expanding prostitution network. Cursetji Shuklaji Street in Kamathipura was called Safed Gully as it was home to European prostitutes. The brothels here were classified into first, second and third class. In 1916, the British set up the Venereal Disease Clinic, the first of its kind in Bombay. The BMC took over the clinic in 1925.Pleasure Island

The purest form of Afghan afeem (opium) was available only at Bachchuseth ki Wadi on Foras Road, a place famous for its kothewalis and mujras. Free-flowing liquor, the aroma of kebabs, the scent of mogra gajras and the resonance of ghungroos, musical instruments and melodious voices made it the most famous entertainment zone in Mumbai. In the 1970s and early ’80s Bachchu Wadi was the haunt of Mumbai’s underworld, with such kingpins as Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, and Dawood Ibrahim frequenting it. The kothewalis, trained in Hindustani music, were much sought after. “The place would come alive after sunset, and there was music and laughter till the wee hours of the morning,” reminisces Abdul Rauf Sheikh, a pan-stall owner. But after R R Patil became home minister in 2003, policemen started forcibly shutting down the kothasat 12.30 am. Sheikh says that girls from Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh now rent out their rooms while they themselves work in beer bars in the city and suburbs. Shah Bano, a one-time singer and dancer at one of the kothasin Bachchu Wadi, now lives in Mira Road, dropping by once a week to meet her children who still live there. The children, however, have shunned the kothatradition and do odd jobs for a living.

Salim Balwa, director, D B Realty, is all set to change the face of Bachchu Wadi and Kamathipura in turn. Bachchu Wadi is to be his first redevelopment project in the area. The wadi has 280 tenants – of these 100 are kothewaliswho regularly hold mujraswhile the other 180 are normal households. For Balwa, the major stumbling block was that the two groups did not want to live in the same building. “So , over the course of several meetings it was decided that the 100 tenants who hold mujras would be given a separate building with a separate entrance and lift. And the rest would be in a different building. Once my door is closed, how does it matter who does what?”

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

5 thoughts on “Kamathipura red lights give way to skyscrapers: Mumbai

  1. Marc of Frankfurt

    Thanks for the detailed article which can be quite well related to Amsterdam, Tenderloin San Francisco, Bahnhofsviertel Frankfurt where I live and many other places in metropolitan areas in the world.

    Gentrification is somehow the opposite of grading down of boroughs. Maybe these are universal phenomenons and parts of a greater cycle? Cf. macroeconomic/investment cycle boom and depression or in nature summer and winter/warm and cold ages … “panta rhei”.

    Maybe it is necessary to understand urban socio-economic dynamics in a broader picture, than try fighting what may be hardly stoppable but only frustrating. Cyclic dissemination and exchange of populations of different social strata or classes maybe the core macro-cultural process behind, which should be analysed in more detail.

    Possibly let’s better learn and teach to diagnose it early symptoms, so that disadvantaged people can take personal precautions (empowerment) e.g. move places clever, settle in more stable areas, network better and unionise or even migrate …

  2. Rudolph.A.Furtado

    Hi Laura,
    You might remember me as the person whose photo you had downloaded for the article on “Egypt” regarding “Belly dancing” and its interpretation of “Prostitution” among the egyptian people.
    I read your article on “Kamatipura” and your facts are “100% facts”, straight from the “HORSES MOUTH”. I wonder the “SOURCE” of this article as you definitely haven’t visited this place, once considered an “UNTOUCHABLE LOCALITY” for the average Mumbaikar citizen, infested with vice and the “Underworld”. I, myself being a “Blogger” and a local “Mumbaikar” have toured and surveyed this locality extensively and have “Penned ” down my experiences with a bit of “fiction” to hide my “SOURCE”. You can check my blog : myblogrudolphfurtado.blogspot.com/. I like treading into “Sinners Paradise” for understanding the World of Intrigue and gossip and facts.

  3. Dr. shridhar

    can i know the source of information about VD clinic in red district ? as i have worked at this clinic as clinician and researcher. this clinic has great history , and played important role for about a century. it was recognized as important clinic at brussel in 1924 for certification, when VD was very high , about more than 50 % invalidity rate among the British army (1890 t0 1910). however this clinic is sadly marginalized as well as remain outside the central academics as any other public health centre

  4. Dr. Daniel Bercu

    Well I just got back from Kathipura yesterday doing medical care to the women there …. 1600 workers??? That is a totally inaccurate figure, I can guarantee this. Just standing on one road I think I could see nearly that many in fornt of me via the endless doors, windows and cubicles in front of my face.

    Our team probably saw around 1,000 ladies in 4 days and we barely scratched the surface. Those on the ground there estimated 5,000 alone just on the short block we were working. Multiply that 5000 by block after block of the same tragic scenario.

    And yes, from a medical standpoint perhaps over 50% we saw were HIV positive. Many suffer from TB and other opportunistic infections. I’m not saying this is a cross section of the entire population since we were seeing ‘sick people’, but this is my testimony of my personal experience as a medical doctor.

    And the buildings on Kamathipura lane are 5 stories of run down 100 square foot cubicles packed with 2,3 or more girls per room. Rats run freely and people occupy every corner space they can find. Worse yet, the place explodes during the night with clients and sightseers.

    I had the opportunity to talk with some who had managed to escape this life also, and the stories were nothing less that true horror stories, with the living carnage of this devastation apparent on every corner, in every doorway, window, and precious little free space that exists there. I’m sorry to report that this article is pure propaganda.

    This is the truth about the Kamathipura I saw in October 2010. We are not making nearly the progress this article suggests.


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