Chandni Bar may soon be back in action, with garish lights, dancing girls, stuffy interiors and sweaty clients, but, hopefully, without the same masters - the crafty owner, the grubby criminal and the typical policeman.
That is, if dance bars are back in business with some
regulations that the performers and activists want, following the Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday upholding a Bombay high court order lifting the ban imposed on dance bars in Maharashtra in August 2005.
The apex court's ruling may have brought cheer to an estimated 75,000 people who were bar girls in Mumbai and an equal number of others associated with the trade that flourished since the 1980s. Though many of the women who were pushed to harsher lives to sustain themselves and their families may not be able to return to the bars, many might and many others might be able to find another narrow avenue of employment.
But that is not yet clear. While the Maharashtra government's response to the apex court's order has been vague and murmurings of moving a review petition in the apex court have been heard in the corridors of power, the organisation formed by the Mumbai Bar Owners Association is planning to wait awhile and then move the Supreme Court to urge it to issue directions to the state government to implement its order.
The apex court and the high court rejected the state government's argument that dance bars encouraged prostitution and corrupted society, saying there was no evidence of this and that the ban impinged on a citizen's right to employment.
Former dance bar owners say the ban revealed the government's hypocrisy. "In 30 years, the government issued licences and the number of such bars grew from one to 700. Then suddenly they call us hubs of crime and prostitution dens," said Manjit Singh Sethi, president of the Mumbai Bar Owners Association.
"The bars were not brothels. I did not meet anybody who was trafficked. The women had come to Mumbai seeking employment, and working in these bars was an option they exercised," said advocate Flavia Agnes, who represented the bar girls in the high court.
Agnes, however, said that if dance bars are to make a comeback, they should be regulated. "I don't think the issue is about morality. It's a question of the women's safety," she said.
"The women face harassment from bar owners, police and customers. They need the protection of laws like those on sexual harassment in workplaces," she said.
Varsha Kale, president of the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union, said the dancers should have a say in the new regulations.
"They may not want to dance to obscene songs. There should also be rules on the kind of clothes they wear. Also, instead of throwing currency notes at dancers, customers should be asked to add tips to the bill. But since views on these issues can be subjective, public opinion can be sought on what is acceptable," she said.
Bar owners say they are not averse to new regulations.
"We are ready to be brought under labour laws. But at the same time, if the government is going to create regulations for workers, dance bars should be recognised as an industry and given access to facilities that are allowed to a legitimate trade, like finance," said Sethi.
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