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The year is 2004. Its quite crowded for a weekday at this Andheri (East) dance bar. He’s been here for an hour and a half and now the 4th round of that cheap double-whisky is getting to him.  A female approaches. Comely features. Easy on the eyes. Probably from the countryside....trying to make some extra cash to support the family back home. He pulls out a thick wad of crisp ten rupee notes and makes it rain. She smiles... He’s tired. He wants to go home. Attend to the wife. Someone switches on the lights. Temporary blindness. A fat cop walks in, “काय चालत आहे ??”

 

On July 16, 2013, the Hon’ble Supreme Court passed what I would call nothing less than a landmark judgment in the case of State of Maharashtra and Anr. v Indian Hotel and Restaurants Assn and Ors.1 . For many of you who may not know, this was the famous ‘dance bar’ judgment. But lets not get ahead of ourselves. Allow me to rewind a bit.. From late 2003 to early 2005, there had been multiple police raids where bar owners and dancers were arrested on charges of obscenity, prostitution and simply for being open too late (1:30 am being the stipulated closing time). There had been complaints that dance bars were the hubs of flesh trade, human trafficking and criminal activity.

 

The State Government took a decision and Sections 33A and 33B were very conveniently added to the Bombay Police Act, 1951. The relevant excerpts:

 

33A(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act or the rules made by the Commissioner of Police or the District Magistrate under Sub-section (1) of Section 33 for the area under their respective charges, on and  from the date of commencement of the Bombay Police (Amendment) Act, 2005,-

 

(a) holding of a performance of dance, of any kind or type, in any eating

house, permit room or beer bar is prohibited;

 

(b) all performance licences, issued under the aforesaid rules by the

Commissioner of Police or the District Magistrate or any other officer, as

the case may be, being the Licensing Authority, to hold a dance

performance, of any kind or type, in an eating house, permit room or                    

beer bar shall stand cancelled.

 

The Bill was passed by the Legislative Assembly on July 14, 2005... 75,000 were left unemployed. Those women who were trying to make an honest living now had no way to keep the food on the table. Ironically, the same statute that aimed at protecting public morals and decency left a lot these women with no choice but to turn to prostitution. 

 

So when the Supreme Court upheld the fundamental right to practice any profession under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution and stated that the Bombay Police Act was ultra vires, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of pride in our legal system. Ahh but sadly thats not where the story ends. If only it were that simple. We still have bureaucrats and politicians to deal with. One such individual publicly stated that “the government plans to either file a petition to review the apex court ruling or propose an amendment in support of the ban.” Of course I cannot dispute the fact that a review petition is a proper mode of grievance redressal. But to propose an amendment ? As far as I remember, the system of judicial review worked the other way around. Something to do with independence of the judiciary. But what do i know?

 

At this point, I would like to draw an analogy to support my main thesis. In the U.S., many States  are considering legalising cannabis for both medical and casual purposes. The Winners - the American people (evidently) and the government (additional revenue). The Losers - the drug dealers, the middlemen and the manufacturers. If you look at it, its simple economics. You make a commodity freely available, its price drops. The moment supply is restricted or controlled (In this case by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the dealers, etc. etc.), the price jumps. A study2 shows that as a result of Marijuana becoming legal in the States of Colorado and Washington, the Mexican Cartel would lose $1.425 billion and $1.372 billion respectively. The inference- since certain products are going to be available regardless of them being illegal, making them lawfully available could have a positive impact. In this case, the Cartel going bust, an additional source of revenue for the state, etc. (I will not delve too deeply into reasonable restrictions, balancing of pros and cons, etc.) 

 

Let’s get back to our story for now. Many of you who are not ‘Mumbaikars’ may not know about this next part. After the amendment of the Bombay Police Act, dance bars didn’t shut down altogether. Believe me when I tell you that a particular Charni Road dance bar has been quite active, amongst the many many others in the city3. “But why don’t the cops do anything?” would be anyone’s instant reaction. Well, to put it very simply...It never hurts to make some extra cash. But when the cops take a bribe (and a sizable one at that), the hapless dance girl has to take a pay cut. Vicious circle. So now I say, remember the Mexican Cartel ! The Cartel thrives merely because cannabis is illegal. Make something legit, and then the Cartel has a major problem. By passing the judgment, the Supreme Court has ensured that the quality of life of the dance girl improves. It has ensured that these women don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from every time a fat cop walks into the bar.

 

The Mexican Cartel analogy applies to so many other problems which the country has. Take for example the ban of alcohol in the state of Gujarat. I don’t even want to get started on human trafficking in Bombay. The Grant Road red light district, the hundreds of auto-rickshaw drivers that go about soliciting in Juhu post 1:00 a.m. every night. All that is for another day. Another post. So for now I leave you with the wise words of our Apex Court. Nayanasi out. 

 

“The compulsion of physical needs has to be taken care of while making any laws on the subject. Even a bar dancer has to satisfy her hunger, provide expenses for her family and meet day to day expenses in traveling from her residence to her place of work, which is sometimes even as far as 20 to 25 kms. away. Although, it has been argued on behalf of the State and its authorities that the bar dancers have taken to the profession not as an extreme measure, but as a profession of choice, more often than not, it is a Hobson's choice

between starving and in resorting to bar dancing.”

 

 

 

 

 

1 Civil Appeal Nos. 2704/2006, 2705/2006 and 5504/2013 ; MANU/SC/0702/2013 for the lazy folks

2 http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/study-legalization-cut-cartel-profits-by-30

3 The author vouches from personal experience (the same was strictly research oriented) 

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