TAKING STOCK: Mumbai’s bar girls: The aftermath


Sometime back I had written against the proposal of the Indian state of Maharastra’s chief minister in Mumbai to close down dance bars. The bars were closed. The pressure from NGOs and other ‘do-good’ organisations was much too much for the CM and his government. The CM knew that his move will probably win him some votes and he happily capitulated.

The girls who made their living dancing in these bars were left without means of sustaining their lives. They had no education and were not trained for anything else. What was feared, happened. I had said that however much noise governments and NGOs make about taking care of these ‘exploited’ girls, they would, in the end, be left to fend for themselves.

The work of governments and NGOs is to garner maximum possible publicity for their efforts – always characterised as benefiting society – and then move on to the next big project perceived to be attractive to the masses.

Once dance bars were closed with publicity nationwide and even beyond, no one was interested in doing the hard work to rehabilitate the girls. What happened to them?

It has been widely reported that from dancing in bars, the girls have now ‘progressed’ to becoming sex workers.

In Mumbai, in the neighbouring state of Gujarat and as far as Delhi, girls who worked in the bars are now ‘available’ to men for a price.Do not get me wrong. I have nothing against sex workers. They have a right over their bodies and it is not for us to pass judgment over the dignity of the profession they have chosen for themselves. What is reprehensible is that these girls have moved into the sex trade because the choice of being a bar dancer was suddenly taken away from them. No notice. No compensation. No possibility of legal redressal.

The government proclaims it cares for the workers, its labour laws making firing workers exceedingly difficult; it protects even violent trade union activists and yet it had no compunctions about laying off thousands of these girls. They were kicked out of their jobs, promises of monthly wages and tips made by the bar owners broken by government action. Let them starve was the government’s attitude.

Such mass firings by any company – even a bankrupt one – would have immediately evoked a storm of protests, rocked the parliament and the left front would have walked out from the government coalition. An immediate bail out by a government handout would be the minimum demand. But no voice was heard in support of these girls.

Nothing happened. No one protested the government move. No one had the courage to protest the moves of self appointed cultural goons. Dance bars employing poor girls and catering to poor customers are closed. Does that end dancing? For the rich, it is life as usual. Neither the discos are affected nor the five star hotels. New Year’s Eve will feature its share of belly dancers – many of them coming from abroad to entertain the well heeled.

When people are dancing their blues away to usher in 2006, how many of Mumbai’s elite are going to remember the end of dancing by the bar girls – the end of their hopes and aspirations and the indignity they have been forced into as a result?

We have enough of our problems here to think too much of Mumbai and what happens to dance bar girls over there. What we can do is to stop making life difficult for those who voluntarily work in the dance and cabin restaurants of Kathmandu. Police has its hands full

in controlling theft, violence and murders. Must they devote time to chasing girls who are not harming anyone except perhaps themselves?

(The writer can be contacted at: everest@mos.com.np)