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Ban lifted but dance bar not a fundamental right

Mumbai, April 12: Dance bars, which brought out the best and worst of nocturnal Mumbai, have a chance to be back in business after Bombay High Court quashed a controversial ban today but a government move to contest the verdict could prolong the battle.

The owners of the ubiquitous bars, which used to employ as many as 75,000 girls, are unsure when they will be able to reopen because the Maharashtra government is expected to the challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court.

The dance bars will require fresh permits to revive performances but there is confusion over when the government will start issuing the licences. A full copy of the court order, scheduled to be released tomorrow, is expected to clear the air.

The high court has given the government eight weeks to challenge the verdict that set aside the Bombay Police (Amendment) Act 2005, a legislation banning dance performances at eating outlets and bars.

The verdict was delivered on a batch of petitions filed by the Bharatiya Bar Girls’ Union, the Association of Hotels and Restaurants (Ahar) and a few non-government organisations.

An appeal could set the stage for a tough battle because the high court has not upheld the basic contention of the petitioners that the ban violated the bar girls’ fundamental rights. Instead, the discriminatory nature of the amendment ' it exempted some establishments ' drew flak from the court and led to the quashing of the ban.

This suggests that if the government removes the anomalies and imposes a blanket ban, the amendment could stand the test of law. However, if public pressure mounts, it remains to be seen whether the government will risk another court battle, though the prosecution indicated today an appeal is likely.

In the eight-page operative order, Justices F.I. Rebello and Roshan Dalvi held that the ban did not violate the right to freedom of expression or the right to life and earning a livelihood. The petitioners had challenged the act on the ground that it violated these fundamental rights.

The bench criticised the distinction in the law between “prohibited” establishments and “exempted” establishments. The act banned performance of any kind in an “eating house, permit room or beer bar”, but spared establishments like “theatres, registered sports clubs, three-starred or above hotels” or any other establishment earmarked by the state for tourism promotion.

The bench noted: “Considering that the object of the legislation is to prevent dances which are obscene, vulgar or immoral and hence derogatory to the dignity of women, we find that there is no nexus between the classification and the object of the Act.”

It added: “If women, other than as dancers, can work in the prohibited establishments, and that does not amount to exploitation, we do not see as to why when women dance to earn their livelihood, it becomes exploitation.”

Justice Dalvi referred to studies that showed that a small percentage of bar dancers was minors.

“Though the state has not shown actual trafficking of these children, if any children are indeed found serving in any dance bars, it would be in a place undesirable and unsuitable to their age,” he said, directing two NGOs to monitor and report employment of minors in any dance bars.

The court asked them to take necessary steps to rescue and rehabilitate them.

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