First it was Chowpatty, the historic beachfront in South Mumbai where trees were cut down so couples couldn’t hang out, then the furore over Valentine’s Day, the ban on dance bars in 2005, and this year, the attempt to proscribe lingerie clad mannequins. That the nouveau political class in Maharashtra can’t see the wood for the trees has been proven time and again. Caught in a cauldron of poverty and helplessness, something the State government lacks the willpower to address, it is young women, real or lifelike, who bear the brunt of the State’s ire. When Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil took the moral low ground and decided to ban dance bars, ostensibly to deter young Maratha and other men from squandering currency notes over dancing women, there was justifiable outrage. Everyone wept over this attempt to kill the city’s famed nightlife. Some fretted over the fate of the bar owners and staff. Above all, there were worries about the fate of the young women who danced there for a living. Mumbai is home to Kamathipura, a ramshackle conglomeration of houses and streets where women sell their bodies for a pittance. Mr. Patil is not outraged by the fact that hundreds of garishly made up women, many of them trafficked minors, stand on the streets every day waiting for customers. His government will not dream of passing a law that criminalises the men who frequent these places, as some countries have done.

Most of the women in Kamathipura and in the dance bars come from the border areas of Karnataka where the Devdasi tradition acts as a catalyst, from the North, Nepal or West Bengal. Poverty is among the strongest factors driving them into the city. The dance bars offered many women the possibility of hope in their otherwise desolate lives, but not for long. The State government is impervious to the plight of these women, and while it criminalises prostitution and bans dancers, it is slow to prosecute brothel owners or pimps and traffickers. Some law enforcers even believe that rapes would increase if prostitution were to be shut down. In this patriarchal and unconscionable scenario, Mr. Patil is a shining beacon, a symbol for everything that is wrong with our political culture. Both the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court have put him in his place but he is not giving up. As Chief Justice Altamas Kabir said in his judgment, the cure is worse than the disease as many of the dancers were forced into the sex trade after the ban. The apex court has ruled wisely. The Maharashtra government must address the disease instead of grandstanding.

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