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Rules go up in smoke: Most hookah parlours in Mumbai are illegal

Of the 400 parlours operating in the city, only around 50 are legal, finds NGO; nexus between owners, police and civic authorities to blame

mumbai Updated: Feb 12, 2018 09:40 IST
Naresh Kamath
Naresh Kamath
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Mumbai news,hookah parlours
(Picture for representation)

Two years ago, 22-year-old Dilip Jani was diagnosed with throat cancer.

Doctors attending to him have pointed to his addiction to hookahs as one of the main reasons for contracting the disease.

Jani has been smoking hookahs almost everyday for the past five years.

“It started as just a fad due to peer pressure in my college days. However, now it’s very difficult to quit,” said Jani.

Jani is one of the many college-going youngsters who frequent hookah parlours that have mushroomed across the city.

Going by a survey carried out by a non government organisation (NGO), Youth Voice, that has been campaigning against such illegal joints, there are 400 hookah parlours in the city. As per the civic body’s records, only around 50 of them are legal.

Ashraf Khan, president, Youth Voice, alleged that there is a nexus between owners, civic officials and the police that allows so many illegal parlours to run the business with such impunity. “A minimum bribe of Rs1 to 3 lakh is given to the various departments by the owners of the hookah parlours. The owners make a minimum of Rs2 lakh every month after all the material, establishments and bribe costs,” alleged Khan.

BMC health committee chairman, Rohini Kamble, admitted that the nexus exists, but said that action would now be taken against such officials. “We will take action against health officials who fail to crackdown on such illegal joints,” said Kamble.

Khan bases his calculation on the fact that when a consumer orders a hookah, it costs at least Rs500, and can go up to Rs1,200 in some plush parlours. The material costs for the owner - coal and flavour ingredients - cost between Rs50 to Rs125. Any parlour serves at least 30 such hookahs during the week, which can go up to 50 on weekends. This makes up a neat turnover of Rs5.50 lakh monthly for the establishment. After the deduction of all costs, the owner makes at least Rs2 lakh a month.

In order to serve hookahs at their establishments, it is compulsory to have a smoking room in the premises. However, to get an approval for a smoking room, the place should have an eating house license. The smoking room should be an incarcerated isolated space of a minimum 100 square feet area, which can extend up to a maximum of 30 % of the total area of the premises.

After the Kamala Mills fire in December 2017, which claimed 14 lives, the initial inquiry report by civic chief Ajoy Mehta said that flying embers from hookahs served illegally at Mojo’s Bistro may have caused the fire. However, experts later stated that coal embers alone cannot be the cause of a fire of such magnitude.

The state government is now mulling a ban on hookahs in the state, but a section of officials have recommended a stringent enforcement of existing laws, instead of an outright ban.

“We had a negative experience with the dance bar ban, and think it is easier to enforce the rules more stringently. In this case, there is an existing apex court order on the subject,’’ said an official from the state secretariat involved in this decision.

Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck surgeon at Tata Memorial Hospital, also argues that the existing laws are enough to tackle this menace. “All authorities need to do is strictly enforce the rule that hookahs should be served only in isolated places, and not with food and drinks. This is mentioned in the SC guidelines, and if it is enforced, businesses will suffer and get shut down,” said Chaturvedi.

He cites that smoking of hookahs is harmful, as the materials contain 28 cancer-causing substances mainly like benzopyrine, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, and 3,000 other chemicals which are harmful. He said even in cases where tobacco is not used, carbon monoxide, which is toxic, is used. He said that the immediate effects of smoking hookahs include bronchitis, asthma and nicotine toxicity to long term ill effects like progressive lung damage and finally cancer of lungs and throat.

However, proponents of hookah call it selective action against them. “Why doesn’t the government ban cigarettes which are equally harmful? Even we demand a crackdown against illegal hookah parlours. In the bargain, those having licenses should not be targeted unfairly,” said Suneet Chadha, owner, Cosmik Group, one of the legal entities operating hookah parlour. Chadha, who had taken the matter to the Supreme Court, said even the apex court has upheld their stance.

In July 4, 2011, then Mayor Shubha Raul, was instrumental in banning hookahs within Mumbai’s civic limits. In August 11, 2011 the Bombay high court upheld the order of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). However, the SC on December 8, 2014 set aside the HC order and passed detailed guidelines. The apex court pointed out that the definition of smoking under the Cigarettes Act included smoking tobacco in any form with the help of a pipe, wrapper, or any other instrument, which would include a hookah and the expression, ‘no other service shall be allowed’, referred to services other than hookahs. So, the use of hookahs could be permitted in smoking zone, said a bench of justice Ranjan Gogoi and justice Rohinton Nariman.

First Published: Feb 12, 2018 09:39 IST