"According to the union health ministry, there are 688,751 'registered' sex workers while National AIDS Control Organisation - estimates the population of sex workers to be 1.26 million."
By Brij Khandelwal

Agra, March 25 - Perched on the high balconies of Agra's red light areas, they have been selling sex for years. And now the Taj city's sex workers are set to be officially counted so that welfare and training programmes can be drawn up for them.

District authorities said the complete details of their background will be obtained and they will also get a tag number.

Women's Welfare department director Bihari Swarup said a programme to identify and count the number of sex workers in the five districts of Agra division will be started this week.

'This will not only help find out the actual state of affairs, in terms of numbers, but also throw light on whether socio-economic conditions forced them to join the flesh trade or they were compelled and forced by organised gangs,' an official told IANS.

As the Mughal capital, Agra occupied a prominent place in the flesh trade.

'A village near the Taj Mahal called Basai was historically set up for prostitutes who entertained the Mughal army personnel and later the British soldiers,' said Ram Baboo, a prominent socialite in the city.

'Later, flesh mandis mushroomed in the heart of the city, particularly near the Fountain Chowk. Girls brought from eastern states or Nepal for markets in Mumbai and other big cities landed in Agra first and from here they were moved to other places,' he said.

Now the regular markets are slowly disappearing and call girls, massage girls and others are coming up, he added. Mal Ka Bazar and Seo Ka Bazar are among the red light areas of Agra.

'Once upon a time if you took a stroll from Phullati Chowk to Kinari Bazar you could see a long row of painted beauties on the high balconies and hear the music of the dancing nautch girls,' recalled Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

Sharma said a caste called Bedia on the borders of Agra has been notorious for indulging in flesh trade, maintaining a regular supply of girls, many of whom later shifted to Mumbai as bar girls.

The area near Akbar's tomb Sikandra on the national highway to Delhi was a very popular place for the supply of girls, he added.

Lala Bhai, a social activist, said the mandi system has however become outdated. 'The business has moved into posh colonies, and hoteliers have the contact numbers of the women,' he added.

Similar surveys following a Supreme Court directive Feb 14 are being conducted in districts across India. State governments have been asked to submit affidavits on the condition of sex workers and give details of the welfare and rehabilitation programmes drawn up.

Notices have been issued asking governments to respond by May 4, detailing the steps taken to implement its order.

According to the union health ministry, there are 688,751 'registered' sex workers while National AIDS Control Organisation - estimates the population of sex workers to be 1.26 million.

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