Letters to a friend...


A Curious Mind W(o/a)nders...- http://ayanwonders.blogspot.com/

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Dance bars, Child labour and a personal experience

The immediate context of this post is Governor Krishna's decision (in Maharashtra) sending back the ordinance for banning dance bars. I haven't yet thought about the problem in detail but my perception, based on whatever I superficially gathered during my short stay in Mumbai is that if these ladies weren't in the dance bar, given their abject condition, they would be forced to move into flesh trade. True, exploitation is high in these bars and probably there is flesh trade going on behind the scene in certain bars, yet to a certain section it provides the hope of earning a living without complete loss of dignity.

And there is basic flaw in the philosophy behind imposing a ban on dance bars. These bars are not going into the drawing rooms of homes, i.e. they are not a forced choice but just an increase in available choice. If one considers visits to dance bars as wrong, the flaw is with those lecherous men who frequent the dance bars. They should be the target of reform.

Dance bars arose because a need for them existed. That need will remain till people change, whether or not you ban dance bars. It is easier if that need is fulfilled in the legal market because the government has its authority there. Otherwise, it moves to the grey market where things are murky and beyond law. Similar to the betting problem in cricket; the government bans it in the open and it finds a vigorous nurturance in the black market.

The dance bar girls also have a need, the need for a livelihood. Banning the dance bars won't eliminate this need, it will only force them to choose a different route to satisfy that need. The ladies in these bars, by virtue of the close nexus, are very vulnerable to being pushed into flesh trade; the income from the dance bars being their insurance against this degradation. And that would have been taken away with the ban.
Rehabilitation must happen first and a ban must arise as a consequence of this rehabilitation (i.e. no more ladies left to dance in the bars) rather than rehabilitation as a consequence of the ban (and I'm not even sure there's a proper rehab plan and even if there is one, it'll be botched up since botching up is in everybody, except the dance girl's, interest.)

True, the middle men like the dance bar owners need to be vigorously disciplined, in many cases they are the perpetrators of horrible exploitation. But that can be done if the government is really determined (nexuses are broken), and only if the entire business is in the open, the middle men are under the strict ambit of law.

There is a lot more that I have to say on the issue but will post all that after a thorough analysis, whenever I get time for that.

Though not directly related, many of the issues and challenges involved in eliminating child labour are similar. An abiding memory of my stay in Mumbai is this incident...

I had to catch an early morning train from Victoria Terminus and was travelling from Mumbai to Kharagpur. The local trains don't run from around 2:00 am to 5:00 am and I was staying in far away Andheri, so I decided to come to the station the previous night itself.
On a bench opposite to the platform where I was waiting, there was this kid around 10-11 years of age sitting alone, all my himself. As the night grew, the station started emptying till by around two to two-thirty all platforms were deserted (or had people fast asleep on the benches). And the kid was still there sitting on the bench but now he was sobbing. That's when I started conversation with him and called him over. He told me that he was the child of quarry labourers at the station in Nagpur and that his mother had put him to sleep in a train not realising that the train was to leave soon.The kid awoke to find himself in this station two days back and there he was sitting on that bench for the last two days without any food. And he had no contact details of anybody, no phone number, no address, nothing.

First bought him food (Mumbai hotels are open throughout the night) and then decided to take him to the police station to file a case, but the kid was distinctly uncomfortable with this. Yet I persisted.

Well, at the police station, it was again a shock. The officer wouldn't register a case saying that that there were thousands of kids who got lost in Mumbai everyday and it was impossible to trace everybody's home. They wouldn't file an FIR as that would mean a written record. I was told that the kid would surely be a small time crook and since I looked decent, it was in my interest to leave him alone otherwise I would be swindled and then I couldn't blame the officer that I had not been warned. And the kid too was too scared to provide his assent. All arguments were of no use, I was only a middle link where both the ends were uninterested.

Nagpur comes on the way to Kharagpur (when one is travelling from Mumbai on that train, and the last station on that route is Kolkata) and the only available course then was to get this kid onto my train. The stop at Nagpur was for about half-an-hour, and the kid had said that they lived in a shanty by the station. The idea was to leave him at his home within the half hour and re-board, or otherwise break my journey at Nagpur.

What happened at Nagpur was another shock. I was all ready with my luggage to get down but the kid wouldn't budge. Surprise after surprise.Then he told me...Nagpur wasn't his home...he wasn't a quarry worker's kid...he was not lost in VT...he had been Mumbai for the last 5-6 years...his parents were labourers in Kolkata...he had been sent to Mumbai to earn money...two days back his Seth had misbehaved with him and had thrown him out...and he was trying to get back to Kolkata somehow...

Don't think I can forget that moment... it was a feeling of pure helplessness...I was lost...

I didn't even know whether to trust him...
Well, the train was upto Kolkata anyway, I got down at Kharagpur after making sure that he would get to Kolkata. Tried explaining to him that I would have helped him anyway, even if he had told me the truth. But his explanation was that if he had said the truth in Mumbai, I might have sent him back to the Seth. Tried to extract a promise from him that he wouldn't lie in the future...I doubt whether he kept it...

And the funny thing was the reaction from my relatives on reaching my destination (I never hide anything from them) . I was called a fool, a naive...god knows what else. I could have got swindled...I could have got killed...Mumbai is known for such incidents...that kid could be part of a big gang...naives like me would always land up in trouble. It was difficult...they were speaking in my interest... for what they believed was my good, but it wasn't convincing....there were earnest attempts made to help me realise that I was a man in the 'real', bad world and had to behave accordingly.

Well, I've seen it and tried to fight it first hand, not once, but many times in my own small ways.
Before feeling those sudden pangs for the underprivileged and before formulating those policies in air-conditioned rooms, one needs to see, feel and understand the 'real' world; only then can one make any 'real' difference.


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