The long, lonely and often lawless highways crisscrossing India carry many stories. The monotonous expanse of paddy fields, drab towns and wilderness flash past the windows of those driving down. But on the fringes lies a more sinister world.
India’s poorly manned highways are also home to manipulative pimps, armed dacoits, and drunk truck drivers.
Shubham Singh, a 30-year-old filmmaker based in Mumbai, India, first started research on a film about sex workers operating on India’s highways in early 2019. Over a span of four months, he spoke to over 25 sex workers across central India.
The short film, Highway Nights, directed by Singh, and co-produced by him and veteran filmmaker Prakash Jha, just qualified for the 2023 Oscars. It tells the moving, fictitious story of an ageing, overworked truck driver played by Jha and how he develops a bond with a sex worker who hitchhikes with him.
Just one week into the research for the film, Singh was stunned by a piece of particularly disturbing news shared by a sex worker in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. A 14-year-old sex worker was killed by an inebriated truck driver when he forcefully muffled her sounds with his bare hands during the act, ending up asphyxiating her. The story, like many others, never made it to the news. And Singh wouldn’t have know it either if it wasn’t for the sex worker who trusted him with it.
“He was so drunk, he didn’t even realise he had smothered her,” Singh told VICE. “He kept going on well after she was dead.”
Singh went through sleepless nights after another underage sex worker also told him about this incident in a matter-of-fact way.
On the way, he made some other startling discoveries, too.
Along the Neemuch-Mandsaur highway running through Madhya Pradesh, Singh encountered the Banchhada tribe. Almost entirely dressed in various shades of pink, the women waited for potential customers on charpoys along the borders of their village.
“I learned that sex work has been passed on to the women of this tribe over the years,” Singh explained. “All the women in each family here – mothers and daughters – work as sex workers while their fathers and brothers act as their pimps.”
In most cases, the women were raped at an early age by their own family members before they were forced into sex work. The Banchhada community, for its part, commands societal approval for their occupation in this section of the central Indian belt also infamous for its widespread opium cultivation.
Singh managed to interact with three sex workers from the community. According to an unconfirmed legend shared by a local, some women from this tribe had assassinated an influential British officer during the Indian independence movement. In response, the colonial government of the time had issued a decree that no one would employ these women in “respectable professions,” thus pushing them into sex work.
“Most of the sex workers I met, particularly the younger ones, saw this as part of their world as they had not seen anything else in life apart from sex work,” he said. “But I didn’t meet even a single one who was doing it happily.”
Singh found no record of the health status of the community anywhere. He couldn’t even locate a makeshift medical dispensary for miles on end. This was an alarming discovery as many sex workers along the highways of India run the risk of getting infected with HIV or contracting STIs through truck drivers who ply these roads. According to a report by the National AIDS Control Organisation, the prevalence of HIV among Indian truck drivers is ten times higher than the general population. The highways, in a way, are also conduits for the virus passed by sex workers and truckers, and brought home to these truck drivers’ unsuspecting wives.
“Some of the sex workers I met actively carried condoms, while others were simply unaware of the risk,” said Singh.
A vastly underreported risk faced by sex workers along India’s highways is the constant threat they face from highway bandits. The Chambal Valley in Madhya Pradesh, where a large part of Singh’s research was based, is infamous for its dacoity.
“One of the sex workers told me how dacoits often rape them at knifepoint, without shelling out even a single penny. And they can’t do much about it. Even their pimps who supposedly take a cut of almost 50 percent of their income under the garb of protection, flee when they see dacoits around.”
Rajat Ubhaykar, who had hitchhiked across India with truck drivers for his book Truck De India, also made a similar discovery.
He found that many pimps flash torchlights on oncoming trucks, indicating the presence of a sex worker in the bushes flanking the highways. But often, highway robbers employ the same trick, ending up killing and looting both the truck drivers and sex workers.
“On the surface, the network of sex workers, pimps and dhabas (eateries along the highways that often host sex workers and their clients) seems well-oiled,” said Singh. “But if things go south, the casualty is almost always the sex worker.”
The way Singh sees it, the lack of empathy towards the extremely vulnerable sex workers along India’s highways is jarring. Still, there are rare moments of warmth, which Singh has attempted to capture in his short too.
“During one of my visits to Gujarat (a state on India’s west coast), I was having lunch with a truck driver in one of the dhabas,” recounted Singh. “A sex worker approached us, and you could tell she was clearly famished. The driver immediately offered her food. The smile on her face that followed was the brightest I have ever seen.”
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