The Supreme Court on Thursday said its orders of providing a dignified life to sex workers should not be construed as an encouragement to prostitution. The clarification came from a bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and Gyan Sudha Mishra after additional solicitor general P P Malhotra drew the court’s attention to its July 19 order in which it had sought suggestions from the SC-constituted panel on creating “conditions conducive for sex workers who wish to continue working as sex workers with dignity”.
Malhotra said there was a danger of the order being construed as an incentive to indulge in an activity that had been termed as an offence under the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1956.
The Judges on the bench passed separate orders, but both meant to clarify that the panel would recommend steps to create “conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity as per provisions of the Constitution Article 21″.
Justice Kabir added a precautionary clarification — “The above modification should not be construed to mean any attempt made to encourage prostitution.”
But, Justice Mishra said, “I prefer to add…sex workers have a right to live with dignity but the collective endeavour must be on part of the sex workers to give up the trade in case they are given alternate platform.”
The panel chairman and senior advocate Pradip Ghosh along with member and senior advocate Jayant Bhushan said the clarification in its terms of reference was redundant as it concentrated only on ways and means for rehabilitation of sex workers. The bench asked the panel to present its recommendations on August 22.
Though the bench clarified its July 19 order, Justice Kabir said: “It is all very good for your (government’s) policy to say prevent prostitution but will you provide to fill their stomach. Even a prostitute has a right to live with dignity.”
But Justice Mishra, who was part of the bench with Justice Markandey Katju when it commenced hearing on the issue, clarified, “We started hearing this case to provide suitable alternative to those who joined the profession under compulsion. Our effort was never intended for those who want to carry on this trade.”
On February 14 last year, Justices Katju and Mishra had said: “We strongly feel that the Central and state governments should prepare schemes for rehabilitation all over the country for physically and sexually abused women, commonly known as prostitutes, as we are of the view that prostitutes also have a right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution since they are also human beings and their problems also need to be addressed.”
The Union health ministry says there are 688,751 “registered” sex workers, while NACO estimates their population to be 12.63 lakh. Andhra Pradesh leads the list with more than one lakh registered female sex workers, while Karnataka has 79,000, followed by Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and West Bengal. Among the metros, Delhi tops the list with 37,900 sex workers.
The Centre’s application also sought removal of NGO Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Samiti from the Court-appointed panel alleging that it advocated abolition certain provisions of the Immoral Traffic Prohibition Act. The bench rejected the plea saying such an organization, which understood the plight of sex workers, was needed as a “sounding board” for the panel searching for rehabilitation schemes.