How laws affect women in the hospitality industry in India

youSha Uthup, the queen of Indian pop, recently released her biography to incredible fanfare at Park Street in Kolkata. Uthup was a cabaret performer at Trincas Restaurants and Bar and benefited from the exposure to “incredible musicians he’s had over the years”. Bars and restaurants like Trincas cannot legally employ female entertainers unless they obtain written permission from the excise collector.

State laws across the country impose similar restrictions on the employment of female performers, bartenders, waitresses, restaurant managers, housekeeping staff and others employed in the hospitality industry. But the issue received little media attention.

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State laws against performers

Kolkata, for example, requires female performers working in hotels, bars and restaurants to apply for a “crooner’s license”, even when their employers were licensed to stage performances. Performers such as Purnima Nandi filed a petition against this requirement, stating that no law required them to obtain such a license. The high court agreed but ruled that the requirements of “crooner’s license” should be read into the licenses under the Excise Act of Bengal and therefore legitimized. A 2015 article in the Economic period suggested that Kolkata had 138 crooners with valid licenses, while 120 applicants were still in the queue.

Mumbai, on the other hand, constantly tries to ban bar dancing. A 2005 ban on dancing in restaurants and beer halls devastated the lives and families of dancers, most of whom are from socially and economically disadvantaged castes and classes. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the ban, finding that it resulted in the loss of 75,000 jobs for women and forced many to turn to the flesh trade. The Maharashtra government enacted another law in 2016 to regulate dance bars. The law did not specifically prohibit bar dancing, but did require dance bars to obtain a license. The bar’s license conditions were so restrictive that between 2014 and 2019, no licenses were issued. For example, to obtain a license, a bar had to have a 120 square foot stage with a minimum space of 15 square feet per dancer, so that no more than eight women performed on stage simultaneously.

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Women in the hospitality industry

Delhi’s excise laws had made female hotel management graduates ignorant of what to do with their degrees. Three female hotel management graduates in Delhi had filed a petition in the Delhi High Court challenging Section 30 of the Punjab Excise Act in 2005. The section prohibited the employment of women in premises where the alcohol was consumed by the public. Since the term “premises” is not defined by law, the court observed that this provision could seriously jeopardize the careers of women in the hospitality industry. The Supreme Court said it was grossly unfair “to deprive a large portion of successful young men and women of obtaining employment for which they have been duly trained”.

Trivandrum’s excise laws nearly cost waitresses across the city their jobs. Dhanyamol CJ and Soniya Das – both breadwinners – faced losing their jobs as hotel waitresses due to an amendment to Kerala’s foreign liquor rules. The amendment prohibited women from being employed “in any capacity to serve liquor”. Neither the main law nor the rules prohibited the employment of women in liquor stores, and to support its “alleged illegality”, the government made the amendment. In the words of the Kerala High Court: “Government calls something illegal without any legal basis…and then brings justification by changing the rules”.

Bar owners in Mumbai have often been left at the mercy of the police. Employees in bars and restaurants are required to obtain a “nokarnama” under the Bombay Foreign Liquor Rules (appended to the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949). In 2013, Barkur Sudhakar Shetty’s bar and restaurant, Rukmini Palace, had all these nokarnama documents. Yet he was regularly harassed by police authorities who issued “verbal orders” limiting the number of women hired on the premises and closing the entire restaurant on certain days. At one point, they posted a team of 72 gendarmes to guard the restaurant. The Bombay High Court observed that there was no need to assign 72 officers for this purpose as the state was experiencing a shortage of police personnel.

In our research for the State of Discrimination Index, we learned that 12 states’ excise regulations prohibit the employment of women in licensed liquor establishments, and eight states prohibit women from working in establishments selling foreign alcohol. Meanwhile, India’s largest alcohol company, United Spirits, has appointed Hina Nagarajan as its first female CEO in 2021. Strange to think that women across the country continue to be banned from selling the very products made under the direction of Mrs. Nagarajan. Increasing the presence of women in leadership positions will mean little if laws continue to hamper women who are not in positions of power.

Sarvnipun Kaur and Abhishek Singh are researchers at the Trayas Foundation. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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