In 2005, when the Maharashtra government banned dance bars in the state on the grounds that such bars were a front for prostitution, there were fears that an absence of livelihood would push young bar girls - as the women who dance in bars are called - into the sex trade.
While the Bombay High Court lifted the ban in 2006, terming it unconstitutional, the state government took the matter to the Supreme Court. However, the High Court had also ordered that the status quo be maintained till the matter was resolved. Thus, the bars were not allowed to reopen.
With the enforcement of the rule, around 75,000 women were thrown out of work and 1,300 bars shut shop. As feared, with few options to sustain themselves, some former dancers did take up the world's oldest profession to make ends meet.
This has been substantiated by the recent arrests of sex workers and traffickers in the smaller towns of Madhya Pradesh, under the Sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 of the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act (PITA). The bar girls and their pimps were arrested for reasons ranging from allowing a premises to be used as a brothel; living off the earnings of prostitution; and procuring, inducing or taking a person for the sake of prostitution; to detaining a person in a place where prostitution is carried on; and so on.
The cities of Bhopal, Indore and Ujjain have proved to be lucrative money spinners for out-of-work bar girls and, of course, their pimps: Travelling from Mumbai, the arrested girls were engaged as contractual sex workers paid for a set number of days of work, and not as bar dancers.
Sona Sheikh, 19, is one of the five bar girls recently arrested by the Bhopal police for alleged prostitution. Talking about her plight and that of her peers, Sheikh says, "There are so many jobless bar girls in Mumbai that work is difficult to come by. They make good money in a city like Bhopal. Perhaps bar girls are new for the people of Bhopal."
The five girls, who are between the ages of 19 and 22 years, admitted that they had travelled to Bhopal for sex work, having been compelled to turn to prostitution for survival.
The arrests reveal a new trend in the lives of bar girls. Engaged on a contractual and time-bound basis, their AC train fare, accommodation and meals are taken care of by their traffickers. For instance, a husband-wife duo also arrested recently were said to have charged between Rs 2,000 (US$1=Rs39.45) to Rs 5,000 from customers, while paying Rs 1,000 per day to the girls for a fortnight-long contract. Prior to this instance, in two similar cases, women from Mumbai were apprehended in Indore in February.
Commenting on the rise of such cases in small cities, G.K. Pathak, Additional Superintendent of Police, Bhopal, says, "There is no demand for these girls in big cities and metros. But young and the affluent men in small cities are ready to pay any price for them. It is due to this reason that middlemen are bringing the bar girls to small cities and that the bar girls are also willing to come here."
What is noteworthy is that these girls are brought for a fixed period of time and for a pre-determined fee. The women are not concerned about how much the middlemen earn through them.
According to Bhopal-based sociologist Pramod Soni, "Cities like Bhopal are fast developing along the lines of the metropolis. The needs of the youth here are similar to those of the metros. That is why the demand for these girls is on the rise in small cities. And then there are people here who make them readily available."
Among the girls who were recently caught is Salma, who revealed that bar girls get very expensive gifts from customers in small towns unlike in a mega city like Mumbai, where they are not even able to earn enough due to the immense competition.
However, many in Madhya Pradesh believe that the atmosphere in their towns has been vitiated due to the arrival of these bar girls and the fact that the police have not been able to do much in such cases. Refuting this, Pathak says that he takes prompt action as soon as he gets information about such activities. According to him, the aspirations and lifestyles of the youth in small cities are changing and, therefore, "we are witnessing those things here which were earlier confined to metros".