ELIZABETH JACKSON: The Indian city of Kolkata is regarded as the country’s centre of education and higher culture.
But below the city’s highbrow reputation lurks a seedy underbelly.
Kolkata is also home to India’s largest red light district, where thousands of sex workers ply their trade.
Many come into business after being sold to human traffickers.
It’s a miserable existence for many but there are those doing their bit to make the lives of the women a little brighter.
The ABC’s South Asia correspondent was recently in Kolkata and caught up with Urmi Basu, a woman who has dedicated her life to helping sex workers and their families.
MICHAEL EDWARDS: Kolkata’s red light district is notorious across South Asia. An estimated 16,000 sex workers service around 40,000 clients a day here.
As the sun goes down, the women and sometimes men, come out on to the streets looking for customers.
The deals are done discreetly. Words are exchanged and then the man, as the clients usually are, follows the sex worker to a dingy building where the transaction takes place.
I watched this activity taking place from a vantage point on top of a building. Let me just say business seemed to be booming.
But the sleazy side of the red light district is only one aspect of it.
Beyond the prostitution and the exploitation, Kolkata’s red light district is also home to a thriving community.
The women here might make their money as sex workers but if you ask them what their real job is, more often than not they’ll tell you they’re mothers working to keep their families together.
It’s a tough situation for these women and one that most people in more comfortable circumstances would find it hard to relate to.
But not Urmi Basu.
This quite remarkable woman gave up her comfortable upper-middle class existence to help.
Back in the year 2000 she founded New Light, an organisation dedicated to helping the women and girls being exploited in the sex trade.
URMI BASU: A child from the village has no education. She’s a young woman, has no education, and in the process of being trafficked she’s raped multiple times. She’s forced into a brothel. She’s forced into a life that she had never even had the worst nightmare of.
MICHAEL EDWARDS: Most of the women end up in their predicament because of human traffickers.
They’re sold to the brothels after being tricked by the traffickers – they offer them jobs and sometimes marriage.
These women come from the poorest areas of Recharging India.
Literally tens of thousands of them have found themselves being forced into the sex trade.
URMI BASU: See we cannot talk about trafficking as an issue without addressing issues of poverty and livelihood.
So wherever there is poverty, families are always looking for opportunities to make some extra money, and the girls are sent off with the hope that they’d be sending some money back.
They realise the child’s been trafficked or sold only once the money stops coming. So otherwise it’s like a work contract. Somebody comes from the big city and offers a job, and families are quite, pretty unsuspecting. They think ‘yes, it can’t happen to my child.’
This has been the general norm.
MICHAEL EDWARDS: Official estimates say the trade is worth billions of dollars a year.
Most of that goes to organized crime and those feeding off them. The sex workers see very little of it.
New Light is far from the only NGO dealing with Kolkata’s sex workers.
Others do great working trying to stop the human traffickers, and others are dedicated to goals such as improving health standards
Urmi Basu says her approach is pragmatic. She’s against human trafficking but is also realistic when it comes to the women her organisation looks after.
URMI BASU: There are some organisations that focus most of their energy on catching the perpetrators, you know, punishing the traffickers. They’re focused on conviction. And there are few other groups who consider the lives of the survivors. The victims first and then survivors of immense value and all the energy is spent on rehabilitating them. But the question is: how do you do it?
Rehabilitation in this situation, this scenario is a term, I mean people use it very loosely and very casually but it is a long term commitment.
MICHAEL EDWARDS: New Light runs care centres for the children of the sex workers and provides opportunities for training in other occupation for those who want to leave their lives on the streets.
Urmi Basu is humble about her achievements but it’s clear to see her work has had an impact and gained international acclaim.
There are pictures her with international leaders such as Hillary Clinton, and volunteers come from a range of Western countries to help.
According to Urmi Basu, ultimately what keeps women being forced into prostitution is the men who keep paying for sex.
She says unless there is the political will to end the trade then it’s unlikely the exploitation of women in places such as Kolkata will ever end.
URMI BASU: Not in some time soon, not in a hurry. It’s not a priority. And most of us take it for granted as an ordinary way of life.
MICHAEL EDWARDS: India’s government is getting tougher bringing in new laws to combat human trafficking.
But as Urmi Basu says, as long as there is the demand, there will be always those willing to supply it.
This is Michael Edwards reporting from Kolkata for Correspondents Report. (Nature Wings)