All night long

Mumbai will benefit from a more vibrant nightlife. The State government needs to take a more holistic view of the issue by assessing the environmental impact, release locked up assets in the city, and plan a zone-wise rollout.

Updated - September 22, 2016 06:40 pm IST

Published - September 11, 2016 11:40 am IST

Mumbaikars have reason to cheer: they will soon be able to hop bars, pubs, clubs, malls, cinemas and other entertainment avenues through the night.

Maximum City will turn glitzy and alive at night on the lines of Shanghai, Taipei, New York and Singapore with the State government set to ratify the new Central Shops and Establishments Act 2015, which allows shops and establishments to stay open 24x7, 365 days a year. Currently, bars shut at midnight while pubs do so by 1.30 pm.

While nightlife has the ability to boost the economy of a cash-strapped State like Maharashtra, the government cannot fail to ignore the long-standing debate on how it needs to be regulated. In its bid to score over the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government, which banned dance bars on issues of morality, killing Mumbai’s nightlife, the current BJP-Sena dispensation cannot lose focus on critical issues of urban tranquility.

The move has already elicited emotional reactions from suburban residents, who are against the social nuisance caused by pubs and discos coming up in residential communities, and these voices of dissent are only set to grow.

Most dissenting views are not against workplaces functioning through the night, entertainment avenues or 24x7 malls away from their backyards. The concerns voiced are about the increasing pressure on the police, ensuring safety to the crumbling nightlife infrastructure, and issues of transport and connectivity in all areas at night.

In its thrust to create opportunities, improve business and provide night work opportunities to women, the state government must amend the Act to seek a balance between earning revenue, maintaining safety and ensuring that nightlife venues and residential areas co-exist peacefully.

Nightlife needs to be seen as an urban social phenomenon which needs to be balanced through urban planning interventions and legislative amends.

Why is this move being initiated?

Of India’s Rs. 2,04,000-crore food and beverage (F&B) industry, Mumbai’s bar and pub industry alone accounts for an annual estimated turnover of Rs. 10,000 crore. Nearly 15 per cent of the State government’s GDP comes from the industry. A FICCI and Grant Thorton report expects this figure to touch Rs. 3,80,000 crore by 2017, with Mumbai and Delhi together accounting for 22 per cent.

If Mumbai, the financial powerhouse of India, needs to compete globally, and provide a work-life balance for its citizens, business visitors and tourists, it must fully unlock this poetential.

A Maharashtra government report put together by Accenture in 2015 predicted how, if night life gets a boost, tourist expenditure in Mumbai will double, as will the average length of stay in Mumbai (currently two days for domestic tourists and four for foreign visitors).

A city that never sleeps?

Historically, Mumbai has been a vibrant and active city, often referred to as ‘the city that never sleeps’. This is one city in India that was known for its nightlife, but not in the modern sense.

Apart from Bollywood stars, industrialists and high-earners frequenting pubs and restaurants, mostly inside five-star hotels, Mumbai’s nightlife in the early ’80s was dotted with khau gallis and omlette-pav stalls or tiny bars outside railway stations. Mumbai being a port city, with a textile mill and manufacturing industry as well, ensured that people worked round the clock, and took the last train home. For others, dance bars in suburban Mumbai and the red light area of Kamathipura were night haunts. None of these activities disturbed the everyday lives of people, and were not seen as a nuisance.

Liberalisation in the early 1990s saw a rise in the average disposable incomes, and the mushrooming of restaurants, malls, pubs and discos.

A lot of the change also has to do with the majority of the population being below the age of 30, and women entering the workforce.

Transportation, long commutes and the rapid pace of the city, which results in long-working hours, has created an increasing demand for late-night socialising options, whether it is for coffee, a meal or a drink.

Since urban planning in Mumbai never accounted for pubs and discos as separate from restaurants, they started coming up in residential areas, and the locals were never consulted before sanctioning licences.

There was no control over the dance bars — 600 of them — throughout the city, and issues of morality and increasing prostitution started being raised. This is where the sparks began to fly.

In July 2005, late NCP home minister R.R. Patil brought in a ban on the dance bars on issues of morality, promiscuity and prostitution, bringing a halt to Mumbai’s nightlife. It further deteriorated when in 2012, the police took cognizance of people’s complaints and went to the other extreme: It started raiding pubs and bars, asking patrons for drinking licences quoting archaic laws, all of which dissuaded people from socialising.

The nightlife economy of the city deteriorated drastically.

Understanding the dilemma

In its scramble to provide the much-needed push to Mumbai’s nightlife economy, the municipal corporation and the police completely ignored the need for people to socialise vis-à-vis the crumbling nightlife laws and infrastructure.

Mumbaikars, who spend their week through long, tiring commutes and hectic working hours, truly deserves a night life, and a vibrant one, for ‘chill’ time post-work and on weekends. And business travellers and tourists need to unwind and breathe the city. But can this happen at cost of the right to peace and tranquility of an individual?

Issues related to nightlife are the same the world over, but if tackled in a more informed way right from the start, the government will be able to minimise the hiccups it is bound to face on the way to a Mumbai that will be alive 24x7.

Let us look at a few solutions that could be considered as amendments to the Act before Mumbai steps into the 24x7 zone.

A nightlife regulation document

Mumbai has six administrative zones and a nightlife regulation document can be put in place before the entire archipelago lights up at night. Instead of implementing the Act wholesale, it would be wise to plan a zone-wise rollout plan for the city. It could also start as a weekend plan, where establishments are kept open through Friday and Saturday nights.

Based on their zonal experience, civic authorities and police could coordinate and document a Standard Operating Procedure for managing law and order, tackling traffic, night infrastructure and commuting and, importantly, noise issues in the zone.

New York City enacted a nightlife legislation law in 2006, owing to the increasing nuisance caused by drunken brawls and safety issues. The law tackles issues of underage drinking, improving club safety and increasing street and transportation safety.

Mumbai will need to chart out a separate chapter on women’s security and safety and how this will work out.

Noise abatement in town planning

It should be mandatory for local licensing authorities, in this case the Mumbai civic corporation, to work with establishment owners to ensure that complex issues relating to regulating internal music systems, keeping in line with the design of buildings and the neighbourhood, are followed.

Non-residential activity on residential premises should be permitted selectively, carefully taking into consideration its community’s needs, provision for the traffic and parking that would be generated, as also the environmental impact.

An interesting way to tackle this might be the way Singapore has done it. As a whole country that is smaller than Mumbai, it is fighting a severe space crunch; intense segregation of spaces is impossible for every venue.

In Singapore, nightclubs and amusement centres can come up in in premises that are marked wholly commercial and in commercial zones. Permissions involve both the police and local authorities who check acoustics, and the noise norms and vibration issues, dispersal and parking provisions, which establishments have to follow.

At any point, the authorities are allowed to intervene in cases of noise and vibrations caused by pubs and issue shut-down notices.

Opening locked up assets

Mumbai has seen the transformation of locked up assets like the defunct mill lands and industrial areas, mainly in Lower Parel, LBS Marg at Kurla, Andheri, Ghatkopar, Powai and Mulund. The conversion into retail and entertainment zones has proved to be a huge success. Most of these properties are away from residential zones and can become entertainment hubs where nightlife infrastructure can be planned and provided so that businesses start investing in these areas.

There should be a concentrated effort on behalf of the government to open up such properties in land-starved Mumbai by giving them special concessions.

The Revised Draft Development Plan 2013 has made amends in the Development Control Rules 2013 that will allow defunct single-screen cinema theatres to be used for other entertainment purposes. These properties, which were previously buzzing at night, can be reinvigorated for entertainment purposes.

Make business districts night-friendly

There is a growing demand from residents to carve out entertainment zones in areas like the Bandra-Kurla Complex or Ballard Estate, and shift all night activities there. Although it seems ideal on paper, good urban planning says a mixed use of residential and commercial is a healthy and preferable solution. For a woman to get out alone late at night and find a commute back home from isolated areas of BKC or South Mumbai poses issues of safety and security.

An example in this regard is Kalaghoda in south Mumbai, which used to be a quiet and isolated area less than a decade ago. It has now become a hub for nightlife, with pubs, cafes and fine-dining restaurants. The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, an annual art and culture celebration, played a role in getting people to frequent the area and enjoy their evenings in the grandeur of the heritage district.

Just having a few restaurants in BKC or Ballard Estate will not make the area safe. It is necessary for the authorities to host weekly bazaars or set up a Mumbai haat in these areas for it to become nightlife-friendly. Corporates could be roped in for this cause.

Get the police back into the system

In December 2015, owing to complaints of police harassment from hoteliers, the State government removed the requirement for police approval to get performance and public entertainment licences.

While the intention of the government cannot be doubted, it has proved to be counter-productive: establishments stopped paying heed to police interventions. The police cannot be isolated from permissions and then be expected to monitor these establishments. There is need for a rethink on how the Mumbai police should be brought back into the system and a check kept on corrupt practices.

Party safely

No one can deny that every vibrant city with global aspirations and waiting to tap its full economic potential should give its citizens and entrepreneurs an opportunity to enjoy its night potential.

At a time where Mumbai’s income inequalities are leading to gentrification in a few areas, nightlife provides a Ground Zero for everyone in society. But it will only be a boon for the city if done in a holistic manner, by bringing in the right regulations and following them scrupulously.

After all, nightlife can be a great social catalyst, and its ability to breach barriers of caste, ethnicity and religion cannot be undermined.

About the author

Sayli Udas-Mankikar is a Research Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation (Mumbai) and works on urban issues. She has PG degrees in journalism, public policy and political science. She took up research after being a journalist covering government policy and politics for 13 years. She is a 2013 Kiplinger Fellow and recipient of the 2007-08 Ramnath Goenka-Prakash Kardaley Award for civic journalism. She is also a mentor with the Sahar Speaks, an international initiative to train Afghan women journalists.

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