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Mainstream, VOL LX No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2022

Re-imagining Kamathipura | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 18 March 2022

The iconic image of Kamathipura as a red- light district in Mumbai/India has a colonial genealogy. Census figures for 1864, 1871, 1901 and 1921 showed larger numbers of prostitutes living in parts of Bombay other than Kamathipura, notably in neighbourhoods populated by working-class Indians, such as Phunuswaree and Girgaon. However, none of these areas were defined as red-light zones. “Kamathipura was the area where European prostitutes first resided, and then were allocated. On the strength of its European residents, Kamathipura was termed the ‘prostitutes’ zone’ by the administration”. (See Ashwini Tambe, ‘Hierarchies of subalternity: Managed stratification in Bombay’s brothels, 1914-1930’ in Ashwini Tambe and Harald Fischer-Tine ed. The Limits ofBritish Colonial Control in South Asia, Routledge, 2009)

The colonial construction of Kamathipura got new life in post-colonial India. A field researcher noted this phenomenon in the first decade of the 21st century (Svati P. Shah, ‘Producing the Spectacle of Kamathipura: The Politics of Red Light Visibility in Mumbai’, Cultural Dynamics, Vol. 18, No. 3, 2006):

 Kamathipura’s role as the iconic Indian red light district is unrivaled. This iconicity is part of a public discourse of prostitution, produced through media representations, public health and anti-trafficking interventions, through gossip and rumour, and through film...During fieldwork in Kamathipura, injunctions against my visiting the district abounded, and included the belief that the area as a whole was immoral and dangerous...Although everyone living in Kamathipura does not sell sex, almost anyone who lives, works or passes through Kamathipura is subject to the stigmas associated with prostitution.

A few years back, two researchers documented multiple dimensions of space in Kamathipura in their field report. To put it in their own words:

“Paradoxically, the centrally located neighbourhood of Kamathipura was also an extremely economically vibrant neighbourhood that offered its residents myriad opportunities of eking out a living in the city, largely under the radar of public institutions. This resulted in a proletarian casual economy and a public culture centred on the street, which encompassed ramshackle lodging houses, liquor shops, brothels, pawnshops, and sundry unregulated activities. This secondary economy was not only the source of employment, housing, and credit, but also catered to the sexual needs of predominately male migrants who had left their families behind in villages”. (Ratoola Kundu and Shivani Satija, ‘Changes, Continuities, Contestations: Tracing the contours of the Kamathipura’s precarious durability through livelihood practices and redevelopment efforts’, Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, March 25, 2016)

Very recently, Kamathipura has come under media attention in the wake of activation of the Kamathipura redevelopment project by the State of Maharashtra. The so-called ‘redevelopment’ project has already displaced the sex workers in a big way and posed threats to their livelihoods. The said project will also dispossess diverse categories of subaltern people residing in the area, and deprive them of their livelihoods. The broad outcome of this neoliberal paradigm of ‘redevelopment’ will be gentrification of the city of Mumbai and marginalization of subalterns.

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