Last week, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher made a rare public appearance for her beloved Conservative Party, at a glitzy London lap-dancing club. It was a party fund-raising event: the girls, it appears, kept their clothes on while she was around. In India, hell would break loose if the Congress, BJP or NCP held fund-raising galas at dance bars. Yet, the ridiculous moral posture adopted by Maharash-tra home minister RR Patil in banning all dance bars begs a discussion, especially when politicians are patrons and partners in the business.
I am no advocate of dance bars. But the sudden closure of legitimately licensed businesses, without responsibility for loss of state revenue, needs a discussion. And, a blanket ban only covers the failure of police and enforcement machinery and the corruption involved in granting bar licences. It also sets the stage for bigger payoffs to reverse the ban, or to turn a blind eye when the business goes underground.
Maharashtra’s home minister is outraged at dance bars catering to a more affluent class of people. But is not anguished at Mumbai’s flesh bazaars at Kamathipura and Falkland Road. Patil’s posturing denies reality, engenders greater corruption. And increases the pressure on a class of underprivileged and barely literate women, who have a limited career span and are already very vulnerable to exploitation and sexually transmitted disease. Maharashtra’s politicians and police are constantly trying to shut down the city before midnight (the BJP had tried to close dance bars at 8.30 pm) since there are bigger payoffs when business is turned illegal. It is always an economic issue, rather than one of security, safety or morality.
Nine years ago, a foreign businessman told the chairman of a financial institution that people from his country found Mumbai boring, because it had no nightlife. Since then, Mumbai nightlife, which was discreetly underground, came out in the open. Today there are 700 dance bars in Mumbai and another 650 in the rest of Maharashtra. They allegedly employ 75,000 bar girls. Dance bars offering a five-star ambience are routinely patronised by expatriates and rich traders. Society parties feature risque entertainment and five-star hotels routinely host belly dancers. I know several businessmen who think it’s fun to visit dance bars in mixed groups that include their wives.
In these circumstances, the ban on licensed dance bars that apparently earn the state around Rs 1,500 crore a year in official revenue (claim bar owners) is hypocritical. Dance bars have proliferated because the excise department freely granted licences, without bothering with the rules. Such bars cannot be set up near schools, places of worship, or close to the main highways. Shouldn’t Patil’s drive have started by weeding out illegal operations and punishing government officials responsible for granting permissions? He must also find out how many bars are owned by politicians and policemen; their connections are no secret. These measures would have substantially eliminated illegitimate operations.
• It was the state’s excise department that had freely granted licences
• The ban will end state revenue, but not the exploitation of bar girls
If Maharashtra pushes ahead with the ban, barring marginal players, the rest will remain in business, but be forced to pay more sleaze money to government officials. The money will be raised by fleecing bar girls, who will have to part with a bigger percentage of their tips to owners (today they pay 30-40% back to the bar owner). Since the operation will be entirely illegal, the risk of exploitation is greater. Also, government cannot mandate even basic standards of health, hygiene, or safety for a business that is prima facie illegal. Why can’t the dance bar business be viewed in the same way as cigarettes and alcohol? Like these two heavily taxed indulgences, dance bars must be subject, too, to heavy taxes. And stringent regulation, to minimise exploitation of bar girls (including mandatory health certification for them, if necessary) and mandate a complete ban on advertising.
So long as lewd music videos can freely enter our living rooms and salacious advertisements (including Hindustan Lever’s latest advertisements for soap and ice-cream) are beamed on news channels at prime time, let us not pass moral judgement about the business of dance bars. More important, let the state not lose revenue and also encourage exploitation, while larger sums of money flow into the coffers of unscrupulous netas and thane-dars in the form of bribes.