India: State of Maharashtra & Anr. v Indian Hotel and Restaurants Association & Ors., Civil Appeal No. 2705

This case came before the Supreme Court of India, on appeal, against a Bombay High Court verdict striking down the Maharashtra government’s statewide ban on dance performances in bars. The ban dates back to August 2005, and prohibited ‘any type of dancing' in an "eating house, permit room or beer bar", but made an exception for dance performances in three stars hotels and above, and other elite establishments. The State justified the ban by asserting that bar dancing corrupts morals, fuels trafficking and prostitution, and causes exploitation of women bar dancers. Due to the ban, 75,000 women workers became unemployed. Many did not have other marketable skills. Statistics show that 68 per cent of bar dancers were sole bread earners of their family. While a rehabilitation program was in place, it was not enforced. Unemployment and financial hardship forced several erstwhile women bar dancers to leave the state or resort to prostitution, while many committed suicide.
On July 16th, 2013, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, upheld the rights of bar dancers. The judgment affirmed the Bombay High Court decision which found that the prohibition on dancing violated the right to carry on one’s profession/occupation under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, and that banning dances in some establishments while allowing them in others infringed upon the right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court noted that “The restrictions in the nature of prohibition cannot be said to be reasonable, inasmuch as there could be several lesser alternatives available which would have been adequate to ensure safety of women than to completely prohibit dance…”  The decision excoriates the ban stating that the “cure is worse than the disease” given that contrary to its purpose, the ban resulted in many women being forced into prostitution. The Court urged that it would be more appropriate to bring about measures which ensure the safety and improve the working conditions of bar dancers.  Instead of putting curbs on women’s freedom, empowerment would be more tenable and socially wise approach.