A Note on Dance Bar Ban

Responding to a call attention motion tabled by Jayant Patil (PWP), Bala Nandgaonkar (Shiv Sena), Shobha Phadanvis (BJP) and others, on the 31st of March, the Home Minister of Maharashtra Shri R R Patil announced the immediate closure of dance bars in all parts of Maharashtra except Mumbai. Subsequently, the ban was extended to the entire state from the 13th of April 2005.
There are varying reports of the number of such bars in the state. According to a report in the Sakal dated 31 March 2005, there are a total of 1715 registered bars in Maharashtra, but the same report also carries figures that say that there are 291 dance bars, 196 employ women waitresses, 1603 permit rooms and 112 beer bars (total 2202). According to the Lokmat of the same date, there are 1356 dance bars in Mumbai and Thane, of which 730 are in Mumbai alone. According to another report, there are 42 such bars in the vicinity of Panvel in Raigad district (a PWP constituency) alone.
Registered dance bars are governed by a 1960 Act that issues performance licenses for 'public amusements' other than cinema. In addition, bars employing waitresses are governed by the Shops and Establishment Act.
However, it is not clear how many unregistered dance bars exist either in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra. It is alleged that several politicians as well as retired and serving police officials own many dance bars. The daily collection of these bars can range from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakhs.
It is estimated that there are around 75000 to 1 lakh women employed as dance girls/waitresses in these bars. Information gathered from interviews of some of them reveal that they earn between Rs 3000-5000 per month. They have to work evenings and late into the nights, often beyond midnight, since official bar closing times are seldom observed by the bar owners. There is no fixed salary, they get a share of the tips received from customers after the bar owner has taken his cut. In Mumbai, where most of them are concentrated, many of them are migrants, either from other parts of Maharahstra or the rest of the country. The state government has claimed that only 4% are 'Maharashtrian' but the basis of this statistic is not revealed. Many of them are married and with children. Contrary to allegations, not all of them are engaged in prostitution, but it is likely that some of them enter into relationships with regular customers. Many of them live in abject poverty, are illiterate and unlikely to find any other source of regular employment.
It is not clear what exactly prompted the Home Minister to announce the banning of such bars. The President of the Maharashtra Bar Owners' Association Manjeet Sethi has alleged that the Home Minister asked for a hefty bribe from the bar owners, and the refusal to pay up resulted in the punitive action. The original move to ban the dance bars in the rest of Maharashtra with the exception of Mumbai evoked strong criticism and suspicion, as a result of which the Maharashtra Cabinet took a decision to ban such bars all over the state. While announcing the ban, the Home Minister had earlier stated that it was being done to 'save the youth of the state from cultural depravity'. Some NCP and Shiv Sena leaders (including the Shiv Sena MLC Neelam Gorhe) have raised the issue of these bargirls being "foreigners" (read Bangladesh). In fact the government announced that it would constitute a rehabilitation package only for the "4% Maharashtrians".
Earlier in 1996, the Shiv Sena-BJP government had tried to curtail the timings of the dance bars to 8.30pm; the bargirls had protested and the timings were restored to 12.30am. By and large, the bar girls have been organized by the barowners themselves, who find it convenient to use them as a front for their own demands. Infact, it is the bargirls who have been taking to the streets, not the bar owners. In August 2004, attempting to regulate their work, the Maharashtra government announced a series of restrictions in dance bars, including a three-feet wall, in addition to a minimum five-feet distance between the dancing girls and their patrons, a ban on short and revealing clothes, no direct tips and maintenance of a record of all the dancers. However, these were apparently never implemented.
The Womanist Party of India, an organisation claiming to be an all women political party has stepped in to organize the bargirls; their leader Varsha Kale is known to be close to the BJP. She has formed the 'Bharatiya Bar Girls Union, claims to be registering it and is at present vociferously leading their protest.
The ban has by and large evoked a mixed response; women MLAs cutting across Party lines seem to be in support. The Congress (I) spokesperson Anand Sharma has endorsed the state government's decision. It is understood that the NCW is sending a team next week and the bar girls are approaching the Supreme Court and the NHRC for redress. Under the circumstances, it is necessary for AIDWA to react and formulate a position.
The banning of dance bars on grounds of 'saving the youth of Maharashtra' smacks of hypocrisy and diverts the main issues. By focusing on 'dance bars', the government is diverting from the issue of proliferating liquor bars. In fact, some months ago, the Excise Minister had even announced that the government was examining a proposal to grant licenses to manufacturers of arrack, in order to prevent people from drinking spurious liquor. This was strongly criticized by women's groups including AIDWA, especially since it would have enabled the government to rake in a large amount of extra revenue. Hence the real need is for a restrictive liquor policy; the focus on the dance element is diversionary.
Secondly, if anything is to be done to save the youth of the state, it should be basically in terms of employment generation and the provision of affordable education. At present, Maharashtra leads in the privatization of education. Policies of globalisation have led to de-industrialisation and growing joblessness, with high levels of graduate unemployment. Moreover, it is not only the 'youth' who frequent these bars!
While it is true that many bargirls are victims of trafficking, it would be wrong to equate their work with prostitution (although the dividing line may be thin in some cases.) On the other hand, 'cabarets' have been in existence for a long time; the bar girls merely imitate the song and dance sequences depicted in Indian films, which no one considers banning! This is a selective cultural policing that ignores the overall sexual exploitation and commercialization of women's bodies in the market economy.
The issue of their livelihood is therefore a complex question. However, in the absence of any concrete package to rehabilitate them, especially in terms of budgetary provision, it is quite likely that some of them might indeed be driven to prostitution. The decision to provide a rehabilitation package only for the 'Marathi' girls smacks of regional chauvinism and is a convenient way for the government to restrict the scope of its responsibilities. It is also not clear whether the ban will apply to five star hotels, which employ women waitresses in their bars.
Given the complexities, my suggestion is that we demand full rehabilitation of all those who will be affected by the ban, with specific schemes and budgetary provisions.