Nepali Times
Strictly Business
The nocturnal economy


Two weeks ago, Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam issued a statement saying that the police would go around shutting down restaurants, discos and bars after 11 PM in Kathmandu, 10 PM in Lalitpur, and 9 PM in Bhaktapur.

According to one estimate, 80,000 employees in about 2,000 nightclubs and bars have been adversely affected by the minister's decision. Most of the employees are women who work as dancers, escorts, waitresses, masseuses and the like.

At first glance, the Home Minister seems to have a point. Due to the non-implementation of urban zoning laws, these restaurants are located alongside private residences, and are seen to be fronts for prostitution. In addition, NGO activists say that women working in the nightlife industry are exploited, underpaid and coerced into doing things they do not want to do.

But the unelected minister's unilateral decision to punish the entire industry is in conflict with the ideals of a free and democratic society.

Legal businesses: Supporters of the minister's decision say that most of these restaurants are not legal, and that the minister was right to crack down on them. This is not true. Any business that puts up a public signboard, no matter how titillating, signals that it is subject to municipal fees and, in some cases, police approval.

Since businesses want to attract the attention of customers but not that of authorities, they have little incentive to pay voluntarily. The result is that the authorities themselves go around checking the papers to collect fees from every new signboard they come across. As such, regardless of our views of what goes on inside these establishments, we cannot call them illegal while the government, police and municipal authorities keep on collecting fees from them on a regular basis.

Nanny government: The minister's decision smacks of the 'father knows best' form of governance. This is the sort of governance that tries to manage adult citizens' lives by telling them what to do, what to say, how to behave, where to go, what to think and how long their evening entertainment should last. What the minister failed to understand is that Nepalis rejected such form of governance both in 1990 and in 2006, and the last thing they expect from those in power now is babysitting on a national scale.

Besides, such an attitude on the government's part signals that it treats its citizens as children and not as voters to be served. If we allow the government to babysit us for our evening entertainment, what is to stop it tomorrow from extending that role to the banning other businesses such as newspapers, books and even speech that it may deem to be 'against the public interest'?

Protesting women: Strange as it may sound, this is the time for NGO activists to cast aside their moral priggishness and support the rallies of nightlife employees against the government. Such rallies help the women who've been kept indoors to come out in the open, improve solidarity, build up activism-related logistical skills, press-related awareness and their law-related knowledge, while being publicly acknowledged for the critical role they play in the industry.

With enough practice, such skills and recognition can only help them strengthen networks and confidence, which can be harnessed by skillful NGOs to eventually help them form unions that offer protection against exploitative tasks.

Had Minister Gautam been strategic, he would have undertaken sting operations to expose and weed out those businesses that were proven to be engaged in illegal practices. But by taking on an entire industry in this brazen manner, he has overstepped his limit and taken us closer to authoritarianism.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)