Pune: Behind the doors of many ‘massage centres’ and ‘spas’, illegal activities go on unchecked

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In September 2017, police had busted a five-star hotel and "rescued" some foreign women. In this case, 14 persons, suspected to be agents, were arrested.

ON Thursday, the Pune police raided a 'spa' which was operating in Viman Nagar area. During the raid, the police "rescued" four women and arrested one. The women were from Thailand. Before this, on November 22, 2018, police had "rescued" three women from a 'massage centre', again in Viman Nagar. The police had arrested a few "agents" from the spot.

In September 2017, police had busted a five-star hotel and "rescued" some foreign women. In this case, 14 persons, suspected to be agents, were arrested. The police had slapped the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) against the accused.

Police say in the last few years, a number of "shops" have sprung up in the city, calling themselves 'spa', 'massage centre', 'massage parlour' or 'health centre'.

Youngsters, especially from IT hub and college going students, are said to form the majority of the clientele of these spas, massage centres and ayurvedic health centres. These establishments draw their clients mainly through newspaper advertisements and bulk SMS systems.

Some of them even offer doorstep services.

No special regulations

Spas, massage parlours or health centres are not governed by any special rules. They do not require any special licences to operate. They are covered under the Shops and Establishments Act, just like any other shop or retail business in markets. Police say spa, or massage centres are opened under the Shop Act, but in many cases it is found that they are used as a cover to carry out illegal activities like prostitution. Senior Police Inspector Manisha Zende (social security) said not all spas are prostitution dens. "Many are genuine spas. They have people possessing proper certificates for carrying out massages. They carry out their activities legally. But yes, a few of them are not, and once we get to know about them, we raid them and take action against them," she said.

Police get to know about illegal activities, mainly through tip-offs from customers. "We raid them when we get information about any illegal activity happening there. Many times, we send decoy customers to verify the authenticity of complaints before conducting raids," Pune Police Commissioner K Venkatesham said. Police say while busting sex rackets, they act mainly against the agents and not the women involved. In case women are from foreign countries, they are deported and blacklisted.

Difficult to detect

Police have no way to detect what is happening in these shops unless some customer provides information. The illegal shops realise that their customers would not complain for fear of being stigmatised themselves.

Zende said many of these spas were also fly-by-night operations. They open up and close down in no time. A senior police officer said many activists tell them that girls from poor families are trapped in these establishments and forced into flesh trade. "If there are concrete leads, we act on them. But it is difficult to take action on generic information," he said.

He also pointed out that advertisements for such services are rampant in newspapers. "Many of these might be indulging in illegal activities. I do not know whether the newspapers have mechanisms to do this, but if they can verify the legality of the operations before publishing the advertisements, maybe we can prevent innocent people from being trapped," he said. Venkatesham, however, said the police needed to be proactive in dealing with shops that indulge in illegal activities. "We will soon launch a special drive against such illegal centres," he assured.

Pimpri-Chinchwad Police Commissioner R K Padmanabhan said his force did not have a social security cell, but he had already directed police stations to crack down on centres where illegal activities are carried out.

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