Why Mumbai’s bar dancers are apprehensive about a new law

  • Kunal Purohit, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Apr 24, 2016 18:45 IST
After an 11-year wait, the ban has been lifted and Mumbai’s bar dancers should be celebrating. But a new law is set to shrink earnings, endanger their livelihood, and offers little by way of advantages.

Namrata is a 40-year-old mother of two and a former Mumbai bar dancer. Now that the Supreme Court has lifted the Maharashtra government’s 2005 ban on that industry, she is considering a comeback.

She isn’t too worried about her age or the long break. What does make her jittery, though, is the two-week old Act under which all dance bars must now operate.

“The industry won’t survive if these rules go through,” she says, pensively.

The law is called the Maharashtra Prevention of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Bar Rooms and Protection of the Dignity of Women Act, 2016. Its rules are even more strident than its name, and violations by customers or owners could end in prison time and fines.

It is a face-saving attempt by the BJP-led state government, which is in the tricky situation of having to roll back a moralistic ban passed by its main opposition, the Congress-NCP.

Trapped in the middle are the former bar dancers, who have already lost 11 years in a career with a relatively short shelf life.

“Neither were the women consulted, nor were their voices heard,” says activist Varsha Kale, honorary president of the bar girls’ union that has been fighting the ban in the courts. “Where a fresh beginning could have been made, we have had only moral pontification.

Their biggest complaint is that they’ve been treated like children.

The fixed salaries, say Mumbai’s former bar dancers, are the equivalent of a petty allowance. After all, even waiters make half their earnings through tips.

The new law that there must be a railing 3-ft-high between them and the customers is absurd. And as for the rule about no alcohol, what do they expect people to drink at a dance bar — tea, asks Natasha, a former dancer who now sings at an orchestra bar in the city.

Many dance bars turned into ‘orchestra bars’ after the Maharashtra government ban of 2005. Now, following repeated directives from the Supreme Court striking down the ban, the orchestra bars look set to turn back into dance bars.

This has become a political minefield for the BJP-led state government, given that the moralistic ban was announced and enforced when the Congress-NCP were in power.

A kind of face-saving compromise has now been worked out. When the bars do reopen — and they will, the SC has repeatedly declared — they will be governed by a law passed two weeks ago, called the Maharashtra Prevention of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Bar Rooms and Protection of the Dignity of Women Act, 2016.

The name says it all, but the rules are even more strident (see graphic). And any violations by customer or owner could end in prison time and fines.

Trapped in the middle are the former bar dancers, who have already lost 11 years in a career with a relatively short shelf life.

“The rules just show that the government has no understanding of our problems and issues. Rather than throttling us like this, why don’t they just say it: they won’t allow our bars to function,” says former bar dancer Sonia.

Actually, they have. Cornered by the SC order, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis admitted in March that the state’s intention in passing the new law was to ensure that dance bars don’t survive.

“Where a fresh beginning could have been made, we have had only moral pontification,” says activist Varsha Kale, honorary president of the bar girls’ union that has been fighting the ban in the courts. “Neither were the women consulted, nor were their voices heard.”

Take the clause banning direct tipping and mandating fixed salaries for the bar dancers.

“Clearly, the government has no idea about the 1997 agitations by dancers. We used to give them fixed wages till then, but it was the girls who rose in protest, asking to instead share the tips,” says Bharat Thakur, head of the Association of Hotels & Restaurants (AHAR)’s subcommittee on dance bars.

What the women fought for, and won, was a 60:40 tip-sharing in favour of the women. For them, the new legal clause is a step backward.

“As soon as the industry started booming, we realised that customers were spending many times our monthly wages on us in a single night, all of which went to the owner. We demanded a share of these tips, and the arrangement still stands in the orchestra bars,” says Jonelle, 31, a dancer-turned-singer at a Koparkhairane bar.

Ignoring the bar dancer, the government, in its haste, also ignored key recommendations made in a 2005 study conducted by Mumbai’s SNDT Women’s University along with the Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW). They had suggested the government fix norms for minimum wage, improve sanitation in their workplaces, make sure they got dropped home after their night shifts.

“The new rules have none of it. They have no real intent. Instead, the Act is transparent in its intention to shut the bars down,” Sujata Gothoskar, a researcher with FAOW who was part of the study. “The government must stop treating these women like infants while simultaneously showing complete disregard for the real issues they face.”

The bar owners are a disappointed lot too. Battle-scarred after repeated raids, Thakur, who also owns a Chembur bar, says it would be ‘suicidal’ to reopen dance bars under these rules. “Instead, we will continue to operate as orchestra bars, even if it means less money.”

The saddest part, Gothoskar adds, is that the government has wasted a real opportunity to regulate and improve the industry. “The whole mess reeks of a government and a society that hates the fact that vulnerable women had managed to assert themselves.”

‘The new rules are crazy’

It’s 1.30 am at a Koparkhairane orchestra bar, and 31-year-old Jonelle’s phone rings as the music dies. The call is from her 16-year-old son and her father, who are waiting outside to pick her up.

“My sons know that I work in a bar, I sing here and make my money. That’s how I educated them. I have no problems letting the world know,” she says, playing with her bleached-blonde hair. “My parents know too and so do the friends of my children. Dancing or singing in a bar, why should it be a matter of shame?”

Jonelle’s approach to her livelihood is practical, and she wishes the government’s was too.

“They banned dancing but still allowed singing. As a singer, even if I sway with the music, someone can call it dancing and book me for obscenity. What good are such rules?” she says.

If the police are going to be coming in all the time, measuring the distance and height of the railings, she’d rather keep working at an orchestra bar even if it does pay less.

Jonelle remembers joining the dance bar industry a year before the ban. She had just come through a bitter divorce and custody battle and then her brother, a struggling TV actor, developed a drug problem and her father, an alcohol-induced liver disease.

“Suddenly, there was crisis all around and absolutely no income. Someone suggested I join the bar dancing industry and I did,” Jonelle says. “Just as I was adjusting to my new life the ban came along. I took up singing at the orchestra bars but the money is not a patch on what we earned before 2005.”

Pagaal hain, (they’re crazy), she says, of the new rules meant to govern the dance bars once they reopen. The one that amuses her most stipulates that women’s consent must be obtained before pressing them into service beyond 9.30 pm.

“Ask any girl in the industry and she’ll tell you that the bars should be allowed to remain open all night. These guys are so clueless,” she says.

‘Why take away tips?’

Cheapen ho gaya hai sab kuch (Everything has been cheapened),” says Sonia, 23, who works at an orchestra bar in a run-down former industrial area in south Mumbai.

She was never a bar dancer — she began working much after the ban — but she has heard tales of dancers earning tens of thousands in a single night.

“Those women are so desperate now that they are ready to do sex work for a pittance,” she says. “They don’t even insist on a condom. I know so many dancers who’ve got the infection,” she adds, referring to HIV.

She’s not looking forward to the ban being lifted because she’s afraid the “police harassment” will intensify.

“They come in every few weeks to check for drugs or signs of prostitution. They round us up, threaten our manager, say they’ll arrest the customers,” she says. “And I hear we won’t get to keep our tips. Those tips are how I earn `25,000 a month. With a fixed salary, we’ll be dancing all night and still unable to sustain ourselves.”

If the government really wants to help, she adds, they’d focus on the health of bar dancers, especially after so many were forced into sex work because of the ban.

‘I felt more unsafe on the streets than in the bars’

When the ban on dance bars was announced, Pooja was 20 and a rising star. The ban felt like the end of all her big city dreams, and in a sense, it was.

Unable to find other work, the high school dropout headed back home to her village near Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. For a few years, she helped her father in the fields. But the earnings from the crops weren’t enough to support the family and Pooja felt like a fish out of water living the life of a village girl again.

The only way out, she decided, was to return to the city and try her luck again. By this time, most dance bars had morphed into orchestra bars and she found work as a singer, but she never again earned as she used to.

“There were issues within the dance bars, but nothing we couldn’t handle,” she adds. “When customers tried to touch us and get close to us, we could say no. And in the bars, no meant no. We could have unruly customers thrown out. I have felt more unsafe on the street.”

Which brings her to what she considers a real issue. “Once we leave the bar, we are on our own. No one bothers with us. We aren’t even given transportation home. Why didn’t the government do something for us there?” she asks.

An even bigger problem, however, is the years of income she has lost, she says. “From 2006 to now, I have earned about one-third of what I used to earn as a bar dancer. Tell the government that this is my biggest problem,” she says. “Can they help with that?”

‘She doesn’t talk much’

Usha was among the best dancers, says Priyanka, smiling at the memory of her friend’s former glamour. The 31-year-olds now work together as singers at a Vashi orchestra bar.

In little over a year, Priyanka adds, Usha was making lakhs a month. Then the 2005 ban struck. She took to singing to support her six younger sisters and her mother, but the earnings were a fraction of what she made earlier. Then, Usha was diagnosed with a brain tumour and needed surgery. “She started taking drugs to deal with it all,” Priyanka says.

The next seven years were a spiral of relapses and stints in rehab. Now she’s back, but she’s not the confident, smiling woman she used to be.

She doesn’t talk much. She barely looks up. “We need to earn our livelihoods through this profession,” she finally says. “The government must understand this simple fact and let us be.”

(Former bar dancers’ names changed on request)

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