After the high court on Tuesday said hookah parlours cannot be forced shut until the state enacts a law banning them, the owners of bars and cafes had mixed reactions. While some are happy with the court order, some fear that the state government might frame a law and impose it. They also demanded clarity in the licensing process.
Missed the season
Though the court order was a reprieve, those associated with the business say that their main season is over, for now. “We failed to cash in on the Christmas festivities and the New Year season. In a bid to upkeep our units and pay salaries to the staff, we have spent a fortune. How are we going to make up for the losses,” asked Kabeer Alam, manager of a central Kolkata-based café, adding that they will have to wait for the 2023 Durga Puja to reap a harvest.
Happened in the past
While passing the judgment, Justice Rajasekhar Mantha said that since the West Bengal government has not framed any rules to regulate the use of hookah in restaurants and bars, the local bodies cannot take action against licensed outlets.
However, in the last decade, the authorities had shut hookah parlours in Kolkata and Salt Lake on at least two occasions. “This happened even as all the rules and regulations were followed. What is the guarantee that it won’t happen again,” asked the co-owner of a hookah parlour. “Besides, if we sell tobacco products in terms of hookah and follow all the regulations for selling tobacco products, how do we know that the local authorities would not act against us in future,” asked the owner.
Ambiguity over license
The court had also said that all licensed eateries should be allowed to serve hookah. “To run a restaurant, one needs a number of licenses including a trade license, food license, fire license, pollution license, music license, drainage license, bar license etc, but there is no specific license for hookah,” said Asif Ahmed, treasurer of the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI).
However, another restaurant owner countered this by saying that all established players have all these licenses and despite that, they had to shut down for months. “I sincerely demand that the state government should come up with a specific rule and a transparent licensing process to avoid any future conflict,” he added.
The police have complained that several hookah parlours in the city add chemicals and even illegal drugs to make the experience more enjoyable. “The present ban was partly to stop this practice. There are several dry drugs that are often used in hookah and because of the scented tobacco, these are untraceable until a chemical analysis is done,” said a police officer posted at central Kolkata police station.
“If this is the case, the government should take stringent action against such illegal practices and people involved in such unethical deeds should be identified and punished by the law and the rest (of the café owners) should be allowed to do their business peacefully,” he added.