Kathmandu Restaurants, Mumbai bars

Kathmandu Restaurants, Mumbai bars

Rakesh Wadhwa
The Himalayan Times , Monday, June 06, 2005


A huge controversy was kicked up in India by the Maharastra government's decision to close Mumbai's dance bars. The governments actions have come in for praise from those who consider themselves as self-appointed guardians of public morals, while they have been vehemently denounced by those who want us to have the freedom to engage in any voluntary conduct which does no harm to another.

People in Kathmandu will see parallels between Mumbai's dance bars and their own cabin restaurants. Like the dance bars of Mumbai, Kathmandu's restaurants too come in for criticism regularly. Newspapers write stories of the exploitation of women who work in these places, and lament the corruption in public morals. Are women who work in these bars and restaurants forced into it against their wishes? If this be true, then we must close these establishments and free the girls.

But is that the case? The owners of these houses of 'ill-repute' have no power to keep the girls without their consent. The women can walk out at any time; there are no barbed wires, fences, or guard dogs preventing their escape.These bars and restaurants are not prisons. And when moral crusaders talk, they should stop painting them as lock ups. If people who want a better future for these girls offer them alternate employment, that would be excellent. If some, a majority, or all of these girls, walk out of what they are doing now into respectable positions, that too would be great.

Offering options would be a boon for the women who work there. It would improve the lot of even those who choose to stay on. The bar and restaurant owners would have to increase the salary and benefits to prevent too big of an exodus. However offering job choices is difficult, often there are no opportunities outside of what these women are doing. Social do-gooders then take the easy course. They do not bother to concern themselves with thoughts of rehabilitating the ladies. All they want is that the bars and restaurants close.

What happens after that? In Mumbai it is estimated that 75,000 girls will be affected. They will lose their paycheck. Perhaps some will, on their own, find other jobs – though not as well paying. The rest will endure hardship. Many will have no option but to take up far worse and dangerous assignments. It is certain that many of these women will end up in seedy, dirty, unhygienic, and downright dangerous brothels in the lawless slums of Mumbai. They might be forced to service their clients without condoms. Many will contract AIDS.

Is this what the Maharastra CM had in mind when he ordered the closures? No. His avowed intention was to clean up public morals. But are good intentions enough? The CM may indeed win some points from the public. Voters might approve of his actions. But he will not get any long lasting benefit. Public memory is short, and come the next election voter's minds would be on some other issue. The damage done to the girls, however, would be irreversible. From relatively decent jobs they could have gone into something which could kill them.

The bar owners might end up running illegal brothels or prostitution rings. For sure, public morals are not going to improve, immorality might though be pushed underground, beyond the pale of law, and where the mafia – instead of businessmen – rules the roost. Would prostitution be wiped out? The oldest profession will stay with us. What the ancient Greeks and the Romans could not end, and what continues to flourish in modern America, Europe, and Australia despite their wealth is not going to go away because of Maharastra CM's wishes.

Kathmandu's NGOs, police officials, and social activists will do well to heed the outcome in Mumbai. By all means offer alternate employment opportunities to girls who work at the capitals notorious cabin joints. If a sufficient number of girls leave these places, they will automatically shut down. Do not, however, force a closure and then leave the girls to take care of themselves. They won't be able to.