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Sex dens or wellness centres? Indian spas struggle for legitimacy

Despite a 2019 Madras high court order, the spa industry continues to be branded as ‘a front for prostitution’

A therapist at a spa in Udaipur performs a treatment on a guest.
A therapist at a spa in Udaipur performs a treatment on a guest. (Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Tabitha Pamei has been working as a masseuse at Willows Spa, a chain of luxury massage parlours in Chennai, for nearly a year. It isn’t a hectic job—she attends to one-two clients a day—but it has its challenges. Clients try to take advantage. “It happens with nearly four out of 10 people,” says Pamei. “They say, ‘We are coming for enjoyment.’ First, I give them warnings. If they don’t listen, I walk out and go to the manager.”

When the police raided the spa in November, Pamei was attending to a client. There were nearly half a dozen police officials, both men and women, she remembers. They broke into the massage room mid-session, detained her and five others at the spa, and took them to the Anna Nagar police station.

The spa owners were charged under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (Itpa). Pamei, the police maintained, was a “victim” of trafficking. The court sent her to a shelter home. She was there for two months, until the spa owners got a court stay and secured her release.

It was the second time in two years a Willows Spa branch had been raided. Both times, it was “harassment”, claims Sushant K.C., partner at Willows Spa. “A lot of spas pay money to the police on a monthly basis. We didn’t want to—we pay our taxes, and we comply with all local norms of the local municipal corporation. So we got raided.” But an officer from the Anna Nagar police station said they had based their action on “information from informers”. “The woman was a victim of trafficking,” he says. “We followed all norms.” As for the application of Itpa , he says: “We have information. We are still investigating the case.”

Spas and wellness centres are part of a growing industry in India. According to a 2019 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and accounting firm Ernst & Young, in India the industry was valued at $1.7 billion (around 12,460 crore now) in 2017 and expected to employ 213,000 by 2022.

Activists maintain what has also grown is the number of complaints of spas, particularly unisex ones, being used as trafficking points. “Twenty years ago, we would get a case of a spa being used for prostitution once a year. Now I handle four-five cases of girls rescued from a spa every month,” says Sunitha Krishnan, founder of Prajwala, a Hyderabad-based NGO.

It is equally true, however, that not all spas, or their employees, are guilty of this. In January 2019, a Madras high court (HC) order pointed this out, in a case that also involved Willows Spa. Addressing a clutch of petitions by Chennai-based spa owners alleging police harassment, judge N. Anand Venkatesh noted, in a 79-page order: “If this power goes unchecked, spa centre or massage parlour can be run only under the mercy of a police officer. For an extraneous consideration, the police can brand any spa or a massage centre as a brothel, and even if a brothel is being run in the name of a spa or a massage centre, no action will be taken.”

At the forefront of this particular battle was Kadek Dwi Ani Rasmini, an Indonesian spa worker and an employee of Willows Spa, who was detained for 26 days in 2018 after the spa was raided and she was branded a “victim” of human trafficking. The court pulled up the police for “colourable exercise of power” and ordered it to pay compensation of 2.5 lakh to Rasmini.

The problem, says Sushant, is the perception that most spas and massage parlours are a front for prostitution rackets. But it’s not fair to tar everyone with the same brush, he says.

Undeniably, India does have a long history of human trafficking. “Traffickers exploit millions of people in commercial sex within India,” says the 2020 Trafficking In Persons Report by the US state department. “In addition to traditional red-light districts, dance bars, spas and massage parlours, traffickers increasingly exploit women and children in sex trafficking in small hotels, vehicles, huts, and private residences.”

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 38,503 victims of human trafficking between 2011-19. NCRB data doesn’t detail the places the victims were rescued from, but activists say massage parlours figure increasingly on the list.

“Most of the spas that get into trouble are unisex spas, where men and women come in, and where there are male and female masseurs,” adds Krishnan. “In India, the vulnerable groups are the ones from the North-East and countries from South-East Asia. The sexual act itself isn’t necessarily forced but there’s other kinds of manipulation. Like in 90% cases, spa owners hold on to expat workers’ passports.”

Over the years, the police has been cracking down on spas across the country. After repeated raids against spas in 2014, the Goa Salon and Spa Association told IANS it was fighting for the “survival of the industry”. In 2019, the Delhi government too cracked down on massage parlours, claiming they were running sex rackets. Today, both Goa and Delhi have banned cross-gender massage.

But such a ban is hardly a guaranteed way to stop illegal activity, as the Madras HC order notes. Instead, it asks “to evolve and start looking at things in a right perspective.... It’s time we get out of that conditioning and look at the science and real purpose behind massage and spa centres.”

“I believe any law, not just this (Itpa), has high potential for misuse. You can’t rule out that the police must not have misused this,” says Krishnan. But if the moral policing continues, says Sushant, it will take a toll both on entrepreneurs and workers.

Pamei, for one, is already reconsidering her career choice. “I have returned to work but my mind has a lot of tension today,” she says. “I am the only breadwinner in the family—I have to look after my father in Manipur. I plan to work here for three months and then go back. Once there, I will join some other business. It’s easy to say what’s done is done but I can’t forget this for the rest of my life.”

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