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The Supreme Court today issued notices to the Hotel Association of India, the Centre, and the Delhi government and six others on a petition seeking to stop women from serving as bartenders in the national capital.
The apex court bench headed by Justice S.B. Sinha sought the response on a special leave petition challenging a January 12 Delhi High Court order removing restrictions on employment of women in hotels and restaurants where liquor is served.
The high court, on a petition by the hotel association and four hotel management diploma holders, had allowed women bartenders by striking down a provision in the Punjab Excise Act, 1914, which prohibits employment of women and men under 25 years on any premises where liquor is sold.
But seeking to set aside this order, five social activists, not party to the case, moved the special leave petition before the Supreme Court contending that the high court had ignored the ground realities in the capital.
They pointed to the case of Jessica Lal, who was playing a celebrity bartender at a party when she was shot dead, and attached newspaper reports on incidents of rape to buttress their contention that women are likely to be exploited by customers.
The apex court asked all parties concerned to respond to the petition filed by Anuj Garg and the four other social activists in four weeks.
Garg said their petition was of representative character to espouse the cause of dignity and honour of womanhood and was filed after the government, which had opposed the lifting of the ban before the high court, did not file an appeal before the apex court.
The petitioners said women were likely to be used by those in the hospitality industry for maximising profits and the employers would not object to their exploitation by customers as it would harm their business interests.
Garg said the majority of women serving as bartenders had not joined the profession because of their interest but under compulsion.
Opposing the petition before the high court, the Centre had pointed out that the Punjab Excise Act provision had to be seen keeping in mind the “safety, self-respect and well-being of women”.
It said the restriction was justified as it was aimed at preserving “public order and morality”.
But a division bench of the high court held that the provision in the 1914 act, which was applicable in Delhi, was not in consonance with Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender.
The provision was also violative of the fundamental right to equality, the bench said.
“The seemingly protectionist measure which might have had the effect sugges- ted in 1914 can no longer stand the test of constitutional validity,” the high court had noted.
In the present day, the act had the “effect of inhibiting and curbing employment opportunities of modern Indian women”.
The high court had accepted the contention of the Hotel Association of India that statutory provisions that were constitutional at one time could become unconstitutional down the years. It also cited various judgments pointing towards the changing status of women in society.