All over India, dhabas (roadside stalls) are mushrooming along the highways. Instead of just selling the usual cooked food, however, these places now offer women as an 'additional service' to truck drivers and motorists.

By Meena Menon

March 1999

It is dusk and in the fading light, the small shed is barely discernible. Two women run inside and peer through the door. 'Are you from the police,' they ask us in fear.

Located on a barren stretch of land, this shed is one of the many dhabas that dot the Solapur-Hyderabad highway that provide women as an 'additional service' to truck drivers and motorists.

The woman who runs this dhaba was in prostitution earlier. Now, with a shed, two cots and a few girls from nearby villages, she is in business. 'I rent this place for Rs1,000 a month and take Rs20 per client from the girls. Here the police harass us often and I cannot even bribe them. They told me it was beneath their dignity to take haftas (bribes) from me because I am a woman.'

Since the dhaba is located on a lonely stretch, boys from her native town help her keep guard. 'The police chase us over fields and lock us up for the night.' As we speak, women arrive clutching small bags. They will spend the night here and return home in the morning. There are about eight girls, from nearby villages as well as Solapur. Most look in their early teens.

On a dark side of the national highway, 35 kilometres from Solapur, a group of women sit by the wayside. A closer look reveals most of them are garishly made up, wearing bright saris. 'I came here because I saw other women in finery, but I find that there is not much of a show at all,' says one of them. J, who is from a village near Bijapur, left home after a quarrel. She ran away to Pune, where she came into contact with a woman who put her into business (the dhandha, as it is called). She came to Akkalkot, where she is at present, again through one of those nameless, faceless contacts.

'I work till midnight and in the evenings we all gather here because it is too dangerous to sit in our houses alone.' In their flimsy houses, they are prey to drunken men who force their way inside, take them to the fields behind and abuse them.

J earns about Rs100-200 if she is lucky. She visits her parents regularly but is not sure if she wants to stay with them, even though they are willing to have her back.

Increasingly, fuelled by demands from truck drivers and motorists, the highways are turning into impromptu earning grounds for girls from nearby villages who either opt for prostitution or are compelled by circumstances. One dhaba owner says, 'The more beautiful the women, the more they earn.'

About 70 km from Solapur, again on the national highway, there are stray dhabas (as the roadside eating stops are called) with very little evidence of food or the usual trappings. At a ramshackle structure, the owner, a school dropout, says, 'Girls are necessary on this stretch, otherwise there is no hope of any business.'

He adds: 'They come on their own from nearby villages. I have two with me now and I take an Rs15 commission for each client. Since this is illegal, I have to pay the police station Rs1,000 a month as hafta. If a girl is beautiful, she can get as many as five to 10 clients a day.' His earnings can touch Rs4,000-5,000 a month.

He is not concerned about the reasons why the girls come here. 'Who asks them why they are here. What else is there for them to do in these parts. Some of them are already in the business and come here because the money is good.'

I hear the same story from another dhaba owner. There are three women here, one of them from Latur. 'They are poor women with no options,' he says philosophically. Behind another dhaba, two cement boxes with doorways serve as rooms to entertain clients. All around, used condoms lie in small messy heaps.

Presiding over this sordid kingdom is a man who was exiled from his hometown after he had committed murder. 'I started eight years ago, before that I was into poultry farms. This is good business and I have 10 to 12 girls. I have to pay the police a hefty Rs6,000 along with my neighbour as a monthly bribe because of our flourishing business,' he says.

He let on quite accidentally that he goes to Mumbai to bring women from there and he seems to have some sort of a network which he did not wish to speak about.

Near Indapur, two girls stand alone on the deserted highway. One is an orphan from Pune. Her daughter is looked after by domestic help at home as she travels all over, depending on stray contacts and addresses. She is away from home for a fortnight at a time, travelling from place to place.

Women say they are beaten up and raped in the fields by clients or petty criminals and goondas (hooligans) who demand free services. Local farmers also take advantage of them. The police do not register any complaints of assault. Sometimes, bodies of women are found on the fields, half eaten by animals. The police take no cognisance of these cases, the women say.

Some of these women work all night from truck to truck to earn a livelihood. 'We are poor women in need of money but all we get is torture and stigma,' says one of them.

For these women, many of whom have chosen this profession, it is not the stigma of being a prostitute alone that is damning. In addition, they have to put up with physical and mental torture and absolutely no help from the police.

Many of these women, who could not return to their homes, have now found their way to the highway dhabas to earn a precarious living.

Some of these women who distribute condoms to truck drivers along the highway, find it increasingly difficult and dangerous to continue with the programme.

While economic factors seem to be the main reason women are opting for this precarious life on the high road, many also come from broken families, some are deserted by their husbands and others look on it as a means of increasing their earnings.

There is also no ruling out the fact that some are procured for the business. Some of the dhaba owners deny that they actually procure women, and say the 'girls' come on their own.

Police seem to think deterring the business or closing down these dhabas would solve the problem: what is not tackled is the economic security of the women or their future. All over the country, highway dhabas are mushrooming, populated by women from nearby villages or towns.

This region of southern and western India is also a place where the devadasi tradition still survives and many of the red-light pockets are dominated by women dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma. It is also an area marked by migration to the cities due to drought, poverty and lack of employment opportunities.

Prostitution has always thrived in such areas where deep-seated poverty, unemployment and vulnerability mingle to form a potent background to exploitation. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Meena Menon is a Mumbai-based journalist. This article, written by her as part of a media research fellowship from the National Foundation for India, was earlier published in The Hindu.