On Monday, Maharashtra’s legislative council cleared a bill to regulate dance bars in the state. If passed by the state Assembly as well, the new law would finally allow the reopening of bars featuring dance performances by “bar girls” entertaining predominantly male clients.
Since it shut down hundreds of dance bars more than a decade ago – leaving thousands of dancers unemployed – Maharashtra has been steadfast in its defiance of multiple Supreme Court rulings that allow for the licensed dance bars to operate. Now that the government itself is attempting to clear a bill regulating such bars, should erstwhile dancers and bar owners be hopeful? Probably not.
The new dance bar regulation bill comes with a long list of conditions that bar owners claim will be impossible to comply with. While there are currently 26 conditions that applicants need to fulfil in order to get a dance bar licence, the new bill has 37 conditions.
The primary condition is that a dance bar cannot be located within a one-kilometre radius of any educational or religious institution. In a dense city like Mumbai, this itself might be a near impossibility.
According to the bill, dance bars will also not be allowed in residential buildings. If a building is semi-residential, bars would be licensed only with the permission of 75% of the residents.
Prevention of “obscenity” and “vulgarity” are the focus of many of the conditions in the bill. This includes banning late night dance performances by restricting the timings of dance bars from 6 pm to 11.30 pm, and mandatory installation of CCTV cameras inside the bars – even though the Supreme Court deemed this as an invasion of privacy. It also forbids sexually suggestive clothes or dance moves that could be considered obscene.
If the bill becomes a law, serving alcohol will be prohibited anywhere near the stage, and anyone who touches or throws money at a dance performer could face either jail time or a fine of Rs 50,000.
In fact, only four dancers will be allowed on the stage at one time, a three-feet fence will be compulsorily installed around the stage and customers will be allowed to sit only five feet away from the fence. Smoking inside the bars will be prohibited too.
Bar owners will need to maintain detailed identity records of all dancers and if they are found to be exploiting any of the women, they could face a Rs 10 lakh fine or three years in jail.
In 2005, when the police and state government first clamped down on dance bars, Mumbai had an estimated 700 such establishments, half of them illegal. Hundreds of other dance bars operated in other parts of Maharashtra, together employing nearly 75,000 bar girls.
The state cracked down on dance bars citing reasons of obscenity and morality, but bar and restaurant owners and even the bar girls’ union took their case to the Bombay High Court. By forcing bars to shut down, they said, the government had deprived several thousand women and men of their livelihoods, and had pushed many former bar girls into prostitution.
Since the state government’s ban on dance bars excluded elite establishments in five-star hotels, the high court in 2006 ruled that the ban was unconstitutional. The Maharashtra government eventually took the case to the Supreme Court, which, in 2013, upheld the high court judgement and ruled that women dancing in the bars had a right to pursue their profession.
For two years, however, the Maharashtra government refused to comply with the Supreme Court order. In 2014, the state openly defied the apex court by amending the Maharashtra Police Act to ban dance performances in bars. Since then, two more Supreme Court orders – in October 2015 and March 2016 – had struck down the amendments to the state’s Police Act, and the government has responded with the same resistance.
Now, with the litany of conditions on its new bill, Maharashtra is still no closer to reopening dance bars.