Back to basics

Bedia, a denotified tribe in Madhya Pradesh, follows a shocking tradition of introducing girls into prostitution. Efforts by the State administration to stop the trade, which is predominant in 16 districts, have been effective, but there is still a long way to go, says PRATIM RANJAN BOSE.

RAM SANEHI of Morena was a happy man on June 24, 1991. The 65- year-old Bedia had taken up a lifelong fight, all alone, with his communitymen to prevent customary introduction of their daughters into prostitution. Finally the High Court stood by him and pulled up the State government for ignoring the immoral trade.

Sanehi's concern was primarily to save Bedia girls. The court looked at the problem in totality. The order rekindled hopes of a better life to the women of at least four other denotified tribes - Banchada, Kanjar, Sansi and Bedia-Nut.

The problem is multi-faceted. First, a large women trafficking network is active in the districts of Shajapur, Rajgarh, Guna, Sagar, Sheopur, Morena, Shivpuri, Sagar and Vidisha. The girls are sold to brothels in the State, the neighbouring State of Uttar Pradesh (especially in Meerut and Agra), Rajasthan, and the rest of the country.

Seventeen thousand Bedias spread in 16 districts including those mentioned, constitute the mainstay of this traffic. Sanehi estimates that 276 Bedia girls from 185 families of Morena district are sold to brothels in Mumbai and Delhi.

Originally skilled in folk arts of dance and music, rural acrobatics and black magic, Bedias just like the Bancharas adopted the peculiar practice of introducing their eldest daughters into prostitution. The custom evolved, as a defence mechanism, when they adopted an extremely nomadic lifestyle to avoid colonial administration.

What made them more vulnerable to trafficking, was a near face off from marriage for almost a century. Taking a faster dip in the filth, and unlike Banchadas who recognised family as the mainstay of social life, Bedias began celebrating the deflowering of almost every virgin by a customer. Marriage within the community is debarred.

May be because of their proximity to the prominent in society, prostitution dens in Uttar Pradesh - the districts of Morena, Shivpuri, Bhind, Sheopur, Guna and those and around the Chambal region - have turned to be the epicentre of this activity.

The State administration, however, preferred to maintain a nonchalant attitude to the whole issue. Imagine, 1,631 women and 126 children were apprehended at the Women Short Stay Home (a home for destitute women) in Gwalior between 1971 and 1988. But, not one was implicated or accused. The arrests were made on flimsy charges of loitering. While "in reality they had been the subject matter of sexual exploitation."

The court, therefore, asked the government to act on both fronts: First, clamping down the trafficking network by enforcing Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA) at all vulnerable zones and appointing special police officers to implement the same. The latter were to be monitored by a machinery at the "top level."

Second, designing a scheme to abolish socially sanctioned prostitution on Banchada and Bedia and rehabilitate the prostitutes apprehended, so that they would not fall in the same trap again. Initially the entire administration was stirred up, followed by some hectic activity. But that is the end of the story. "Action taken on immoral traffic act is almost nil or negligible," Mr. N.K. Tripathi, Inspector General (Investigations) of Madhya Pradesh admitted in February 1999. The potential redlight or trafficking zones are implemented and special officers are appointed in places, but only on paper.

The district was notified and the city superintendent of police (CSP), Neemuch, was offered the additional charge of special police officer to implement SITA (without any further enforcement), long ago. But merely two such arrests were made till late 1998! That too during the reign of a particular district collector who took interest in a number of social issues.

In late 1998, the then district collector of (unified) Mandsaur took up the issue of Banchadas. And, guess what he had to face first: The man in question was unaware of his additional charge. Under pressure he had later arrested 11 persons. All were freed by court due to lack of evidence.

To continue the crack-down, the collector nominated a retired army officer to carry out the job. Action was taken on nearly 60 prostitutes, but not on the men involved in the game.

Mandsaur is lucky to see some action. In Rajgarh the district administration had recently proposed appointment of a special officer as it is a notified zone!

Yes, trafficking of Bedia, Kanjar, Sansi, Bedia-Nut girls from Rajgarh is an open secret. According to a study by Pachor based NGO, Dr. Ambedkar Education Society, in 1995, 380 girls made way to prostitution from 48 villages in this backward district.

The fate of the second part of the High Court order was a shade better. "Jabali Yojna" - the scheme for abolition of socially sanctioned prostitution was announced in 1992. The four-part, Rs. 16 crore, scheme was a well researched one, targetting an end to this evil, in the long term, by involving NGOs. The scheme included: Separation of children in 6-12 age group and providing them primary education in special residential schools. Imparting higher education or vocational training to girls in the age group 12-25, in order to wean them from prostitution. Also, ensuring health care and AIDS awareness among the population at large.

The ever optimistic Sanehi, who had spent the previous 40 years in rescuing girls from brothels and literally fighting on the streets with fellow Bedias, now began the second phase of his life - bringing up the future generation - at Abhyuday Ashram, a residential primary and middle school (upto Standard VIII), at Morena.

Run by his organisation, Bimukka Jati Avyuday Sangha (an organisation for the upliftment of denotified tribes) the school was set up under the first part of "Jabali Yojna". It began with 100 boys and girls at an unused government building. Sooner or later, there was a total 14 to 15 such NGO-run schools in different districts.

What happened next is history. The remaining three parts, including the most proactive agendas, are yet to be implemented. With a combined grant of Rs. 250 per month per child, evergreen Sanehi is struggling to run the "Ashram" (as it is popularly known) at Morena, with its mounting debt.

The school presently has 223 students against a government approval of only 150. "I had to return many," Sanehi says in pain. "Else we will go bankrupt." "Sending a girl back home at that age would mean leaving her alone in the middle of sharks."

As on date three or four Jabali schools are alive, including "Avyuday Ashram". The rest like the one set up by Mahila Mandal at Mandsaur town for Banchadas are still in use but for different purposes. The school was wound-up within an year of operation. The vacated building is now rented for holding marriage ceremonies!

Sanehi is back with a contempt of court petition.

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