The people of India see prostitution in a bad light, but the question remains—is it legal or illegal? This article aims to answer just that. The sole act of voluntarily providing sexual gratification in exchange for money is not unlawful in India. So, what’s illegal about prostitution? The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 makes acts associated with prostitution, like owning a brothel, coercing persons to do sex work, etc., illegal. Hence, it explicitly targets the pimps, brothel owners, intermediaries, etc., and not the sex workers. But often, innocent sex workers get sucked into the quagmire of legal action along with their ‘facilitators.’
On February 14, 2011, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of a man named Budhadev Karmaskar for murdering a sex worker in Kolkata’s red-light area in September 1999; hence the imposition of life imprisonment on him remained upheld. After the dismissal of the appeal, the Supreme Court took suo moto cognizance and turned the case into a PIL to improve the lives of the sex workers. The court opined that the prostitutes have the right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme court also asked the central and state governments to rehabilitate physically and sexually abused prostitutes. Furthermore, to guide the Supreme Court on the subject, a panel was made which gave 10 recommendations, including the fast-paced issuance of identity cards to sex workers, among others. The Supreme Court also asked the central government to amend The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956.
Since then, the central government has formulated no law benefitting the sex workers.
On May 19, 2022, a bench led by Justice L. Nageswara Rao noted that the center was yet to bring a law on prostitution. Hence, until proper legislation came into force, the SC used its extraordinary powers under Article 142 and passed orders to ensure “complete justice.” The SC recognized sex work as a “profession.” Out of the 10 recommendations made by the panel, it ordered six to be implemented, which include: medical help for sexual assault victims, sensitizing police about the rights of sex workers and to treat them with dignity, a survey of all ITPA protective homes so that adult women detained against their will are freed immediately, Press Council of India should be urged to take utmost care that the identities of the sex workers are not revealed, and directions to ensuring the health and safety (contraception, etc.) should neither be construed as offenses nor seen as evidence of the commission of a crime.
Prostitution is not an inherently criminal act. Most women are pushed towards it either because of poverty or force. It was high time that the rights of these females and children were recognized and extended to them the right to live with dignity. This step of the Hon’ble Supreme Court is a successful attempt to cover the grey areas in the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956.