Prostitution (the exchange of sexual services for money) is legal in India. A number of related activities including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, prostitution in a hotel,child prostitution, pimping and pandering are illegal. There are however many brothels illegally operating in Indian cities including Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.
In ancient India, there was a practice of the rich asking Nagarvadhu to sing and dance, noted in history as "brides of the town". Famous examples include Amrapali, state courtesan and Buddhist disciple, described in "Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu" by Acharya Chatursen and Vasantasena, a character in the classic Sanskrit story of Mricchakatika, written in the 2nd century BC by draka. Women competed to win the title of a Nagarvadhu, and it was not considered a taboo The most beautiful woman was chosen as the Nagarvadhu. A Nagarvadhu was respected like a queen or Goddess, but she was a courtesan or prostitute; people could watch her dance and sing. The first reference to dancing girls in temples is found in Kalidasa's "Meghadhoot", that the dancing girls were present at the time of worship in the Mahakal Temple of Ujjain.
Regarding the Devadasi concept, some scholars are of the opinion that the custom of dedicating girls to temples probably became quite common in the 6th century CE, as most of the Puranas containing reference to it were written during this period. By the end of the 10th century, the total number of devadasis in many temples was in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the temple. They occupied a rank next only to priests and their number often reached high proportions. For example, there were 400 devadasis attached to the temples at Tanjore and Travancore. Local kings often invited temple dancers to dance in their courts, the occurrence of which created a new category of dancers, rajadasis, and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself to the god, but the rajadasi's dance was meant to be an entertainment. The popularity of devadasis seems to have reached its pinnacle around 10th and 11th century CE. The rise and fall in the status of devadasis can be seen to be running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples. The destruction of temples beginning of the second millennium CE by Muslim invaders from the northwestern borders of the country and spread through the whole of the country. Thereafter the status of the temples fell very quickly in North India and slowly in South India. As the temples became poorer and lost their patron kings, and in some cases were destroyed, the devadasis were forced into a life of poverty, misery, and, in many cases, prostitution. Many scholars maintain that the devadasi system is not described in the holy scriptures of Hinduism as the scriptures do not refer to any form of sacred prostitution or temple girls. Whether the devadasi girls engaged in sexual services is debated, however, as temple visitors touching or speaking to the girls was considered an offence.
A tawaif was a highly sophisticated courtesan who catered to the nobility of India, particularly during the Mughal era. The tawaifs excelled in and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theatre, and the Urdu literary tradition, and were considered an authority on etiquette. Tawaifs were largely a North Indian institution central to Mughal court culture from the 16th century onwards and became even more prominent with the weakening of Mughal rule in the mid-18th century. They contributed significantly to the continuation of traditional dance and music forms and then emergence of modern Indian cinema.
Goa was a colony in Portuguese India set up in the early 16th century, and this Portuguese stronghold contained a community of Portuguese slaves. During the late 16th and 17th centuries the Portuguese trade in Japanese slaves resulted in traders from the Portuguese Empire and their captive lascar crew members from South Asia bringing Japanese slaves to Goa. These were usually young Japanese women and girls brought or captured from Japan as sexual slaves.
The culture of the performing art of nautch, an alluring style of popular dance, rose to prominence during the later period of Mughal Empire and the British East India Company Rule. During the period of Company rule in India by the British East India Company in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and during the subsequent British Raj, the British military established and maintained brothels for its troops across India. Women and girls were recruited from poor rural Indian families and paid directly by the military. The red-light districts of cities such as Mumbai developed at this time. The governments of many Indian princely states had regulated prostitution in India prior to the 1860s. British Raj enacted Cantonment Act of 1864 to regulate Prostitution in colonial India as a matter of accepting a necessary evil. The Cantonment Acts regulated and structured prostitution in the British military bases which provided for about twelve to fifteen Indian women kept in brothels called chaklas for each regiment of thousand British soldiers. They were licensed by military officials and were allowed to consort with soldiers only. Indian lascar seamen who were forced into the British military to the United Kingdom copied the masters by joining the British forces on frequent visits to the local British prostitutes there. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of women and girls from continental Europe and Japan were trafficked into British India, where they worked as prostitutes servicing British soldiers and local Indian men.
Professions sometimes related to prostitution
Other related often misunderstood but traditionally/originally non-prostitution professions
"From time immemorial Indian poets have sung praises of the 'public woman', the professional entertainer. The epics give us a colourful description of her intimate connection with royal splendour. The Puranas highlight her auspicious presence as a symbol of good luck. Buddhist literature also testifies to the high esteem in which she was held in society. She appears through the ages in different incarnations from apsara in divine form to ganika, devdasi, nartika [ordinary dancer], kanchani, tawaif and the nautch girl."
Government organisations like MDACS (Maharashtra District AIDS Control Society) have played a very prominent role in generating awareness on HIV/AIDS through the assistance in providing free literature and organising street campaigns. There are several NGO that feed on funds for protecting STI/STDs spread to common population NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation), a government agency lead these NGOs.
There were an estimated two million female sex workers in the country in 1997. In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development reported the presence of over 3 million female sex workers in India, with 35.47 percent of them entering the trade before the age of 18 years. The number of prostitutes rose by 50% between 1997 and 2004.
India's largest and best-known red-light districts are Sonagachi in Kolkata, Reshampura in Gwalior, Kamathipura, Sonapur in Mumbai and G. B. Road in New Delhi, that host thousands of sex workers. Earlier, there were centres such as Naqqasa Bazaar in Saharanpur, Chaturbhuj Sthan in Muzaffarpur, Lalpur, Maduovwedih in Varanasi, Meerganj in Allahabad and Kabadi bazar of Meerut.
Surveys show there are an estimated 1.2 million children involved in prostitution. International organizations like Free a Girl are very willing to assist the Indian police in capturing traffickers, pimps and sex offenders. Recently some child saving operations were canceled, as the higher police officials of Mumbai were very displeased with the presence of a foreign journalist.
Much new knowledge on sex work in India came from the first major survey, in April 2011. This was performed by the Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation (CASAM), which is part of SANGRAM, a major NGO that deals with sex workers.
The law is vague on prostitution itself. The primary law dealing with the status of sex workers is the 1956 law referred to as The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA). According to this law, prostitutes can practise their trade privately but cannot legally solicit customers in public. A BBC article, however, mentions that prostitution is illegal in India; the Indian law does not refer to the practice of selling one's own sexual service as "prostitution". Clients can be punished for sexual activity in proximity to a public place. Organised prostitution (brothels, prostitution rings, pimping, etc.) is illegal. As long as it is done individually and voluntarily, a woman (male prostitution is not recognised in any law in India but even consensual anal intercourse is illegal under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) can use her body in exchange for material benefit. In particular, the law forbids a sex worker to carry on her profession within 200 yards of a public place. Unlike as is the case with other professions, sex workers are not protected under normal labour laws, but they possess the right to rescue and rehabilitation if they desire and possess all the rights of other citizens.
In practice SITA is not commonly used. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) which predates the SITA is often used to charge sex workers with vague crimes such as "public indecency" or being a "public nuisance" without explicitly defining what these consist of. In 1986 the old law was amended as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or ITPA. Attempts to amend this to criminalise clients  have been opposed by the Health Ministry, and has encountered considerable opposition. In a positive development in the improvement of the lives of female sex workers in Calcutta, a state-owned insurance company has provided life insurance to 250 individuals.
Over the years, India has seen a growing mandate to legalise prostitution, to avoid exploitation of sex workers and their children by middlemen and in the wake of a growing HIV/AIDS menace.
The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or ITPA is a 1986 amendment of legislation passed in 1956 as a result of the signing by India of the United Nations' declaration in 1950 in New York on the suppression of trafficking. The act, then called the All India Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA), was amended to the current law. The laws were intended as a means of limiting and eventually abolishing prostitution in India by gradually criminalising various aspects of sex work. The main points of the PITA are as follows:
Public place in context of this law includes places of public religious worship, educational institutions, hostels, hospitals etc. A "notified area" is a place which is declared to be "prostitution-free" by the state government under the PITA. Brothel in context of this law, is a place which has two or more sex workers (2a). Prostitution itself is not an offence under this law, but soliciting, brothels, madams and pimps are illegal.
In 2006 the Ministry of Women and Child Development put forward a bill aimed at reducing human trafficking. The bill proposed criminalising the clients of trafficked prostitutes. However, it stalled during the legislative process, and legislation against human trafficking was subsequently effected by amendments to the Indian Penal Code.
Clauses in the ITPA relating to living off the earnings of a sex-worker are being challenged in court, together with criminalisation of brothels, prostitution around a notified public place, soliciting and the power given to a magistrate to evict sex-workers from their home and forbidding their re-entry. Other groups are lobbying parliament for amendments to the law.
In 2009 the Supreme Court ruled that prostitution should be legalised and convened a panel to consider amending the law. In 2011 the Supreme Court held that "right to live with dignity" is a Constitutional right and issued an order relating to "creating conditions conducive for sex workers to work with dignity". The court directed the Central Government, States and Union Territories to carry out a survey to determine the number of sex workers in the country willing to be rehabilitated.
However, in 2012 the Central Government made a plea to the Supreme Court arguing that sex workers should not be allowed to pursue their trade under the constitutional "right to live with dignity". Government counsel contended that any such endorsement by the court would be ultra vires of ITPA which totally bans prostitution. Opposing counsel submitted that the Act only prohibited brothel activities and punitive action against pimps. The Supreme Court agreed to examine the plea.
Most of the research done by the development organisation Sanlaap indicates that the majority of sex workers in India work as prostitutes due to lacking resources to support themselves or their children. Most do not choose this profession but out of necessity, often after the breakup of a marriage or after being disowned and thrown out of their homes by their families. The children of sex workers are much more likely to get involved in this kind of work as well. A survey completed in 1988 by the All Bengal Women's Union interviewed a random sample of 160 sex workers in Calcutta: Of those, 23 claimed that they had come of their own accord, whereas the remaining 137 women claimed to have been introduced into the sex trade by agents. The breakdown was as follows:
The breakdown of the agents by sex were as follows: 76% of the agents were female and 24% were males. Over 80% of the agents bring young women into the profession were known people and not traffickers: neighbors, relatives, etc.
Also prevalent in parts of Bengal is the Chukri System, whereby a female is coerced into prostitution to pay off debts, as a form of bonded labour. In this system, the prostitute generally works without pay for one year or longer to repay a supposed debt to the brothel owner for food, clothes, make-up and living expenses. In India, the Government's "central sponsored scheme" provides financial or in-kind grants to released bonded labourers and their family members, the report noted, adding over 2,850,000 people have benefited to date. Almost 5,000 prosecutions have been recorded so far under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976.
Some women and girls are by tradition born into prostitution to support the family. The Bachara Tribe, for example, follow this tradition with eldest daughters often expected to be prostitutes.
Over 40% of 484 prostituted girls rescued during major raids of brothels in Mumbai in 1996 were from Nepal. In India one estimate calculated that as many as 200,000 Nepalese girls, many under the age of 14, were sold into sexual slavery during the 1990s.
Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta) have the country's largest brothel based sex industry, with over 100,000 sex workers in Mumbai. It is estimated that HIV among prostitutes have largely fallen, in last decade.
A positive outcome of a prevention programme among prostitutes can be found in Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata. The education programme targeted about 5,000 female prostitutes. A team of two peer workers carried out outreach activities including education, condom promotion and follow-up of STI cases. When the project was launched in 1992, 27% of sex workers reported condom use. By 1995 this had risen to 82%, and in 2001 it was 86%.
Reaching women who are working in brothels has proven to be quite difficult due to the sheltered and secluded nature of the work, where pimps, Mashis, and brothel-keepers often control access to the women and prevent their access to education, resulting in a low to modest literacy rate for many sex workers.
Not only HIV, but other infection diseases have been decreased, examined data from 868 prevention projects -- serving about 500,000 female sex workers -- implemented between 1995 and 2008. Research found that reaching sex workers through prevention programs decreased HIV and syphilis infection rates among young pregnant women tested routinely at government' prenatal health clinics.
Girls from Arabia, Japan, the former Soviet Republics, Bangladesh,Sri Lanka and from other origins have been noted as working as prostitutes in India. In 2015 ten Thai women were arrested in India on prostitution charges for allegedly running two brothels masquerading as massage parlours.
In 2013 there were reports of Afghan women being trafficked as prostitutes to India.
Prostitution, has been a theme in Indian literature and arts for centuries, Mrichakatika a ten-act Sanskrit play, was written by ?hudraka in the 2nd century BC. It entails the story of a courtesan Vasantsena. It was made into Utsav, a 1984 Hindi film. Amrapali (Ambapali) the nagarvadhu of the Kingdom of Vaishali famously became a Buddhist monk later in the life, a story retold in a Hindi film, Amprapali (1966).
Tawaif, or the courtesan in the Mughal era, has been a theme of a number of films including Pakeezah (1972), Umrao Jaan (1981), Tawaif (film) (1985), and Umrao Jaan (2006). Other movies depicting lives of prostitutes and dancing girls are Sharaabi (1984), Amar Prem (1972), Mausam (1975) Mandi (1983), Devdas (2002), Chandni Bar (2001), Chameli (2003), Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007), Dev D (2009), B.A. Pass (2013), Thira (2013) and Begum Jaan (2017)
Manoranjan (1974) was perhaps the first Bollywood film where prostitution was presented as a "fun" activity without moralising and in which the lead character chooses prostitution on her own free will.
Child prostitution is also an issue in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. Chaarfutiya Chhokare, a 2014 Hindi film directed by Manish Harishankar has also dealt with the problem of child prostitution in India very strongly.
Lakshmi is a 2014 Hindi social problem film, directed by Nagesh Kukunoor. The film deals with the harsh realities of human trafficking and child prostitution, which continue behind closed curtains in rural areas of India