Nepali Times
Economic Sense
Policing sleaze


There must be a balance between protecting citizens's rights and supporting business entrepreneurs.

When the Home Minister decided to shut down Kathmandu's seedy dance bars and ordered regular bars to close at 11PM, Thamel residents quickly put out an advertisement thanking him for bringing an end to the late-night sleaze in their long-suffering neighbourhood.

But next day, hundreds of nightclub workers streamed on to the city's streets to protest against the decision. After all, one man's meat is another man's poison. The right to do business is a universal right and in Nepal that has to be protected. In a country that sees tourism as a critical source of revenue, the city should not be closing down the nightlife just because it cannot regulate it properly.

In tourism-oriented cities the world over, there is always friction between residents and the owners of such businesses, who argue that their city cannot sell itself as a tourist destination if there is nothing for tourists to do at night.

However, this right to do business should not mean encroaching upon citizens' rights to a peaceful life. The dance bars had become such a nuisance that neighbours had no option but to start shuttering their windows and trying to soundproof their homes.

Most of these bars received protection either from individuals in the social elite or from political parties to ply their sleazy trade and other forms of illegal business without paying taxes or being accountable to the state. It was becoming difficult for parents to explain to their children what went on inside.

While Nepal slowly earned a reputation for cheap sex tourism, when The Economist decided to write about it we argued that the dance bars were in fact 'cultural centres', which is how they had been registered.

The easy option now is for the government to shut everything down. It's like a country which shuts down the entire Internet because there are some websites it doesn't want people to access. But that is the worst thing to do.

The government needs to understand that business people have rights too. It is easier said than done, but the only sensible option here is for the government to become an efficient regulator. If bars have to function with loud music, then make them invest in soundproofing so the neighbours can get a peaceful night's sleep. Establishments that flout the law by selling illegal sex and other services should be taken to task, but at the same time the government needs to think of ways to regulate the world's oldest profession. Can zoning work?

In the long term, the government also needs to examine ways of separating residential and commercial areas. Nepal's haphazard urban development has already created a lot of problems vis-?-vis infrastructure bottlenecks and environmental degradation, but this battle of the bars has brought to light other issues.

We have bars outside schools and colleges targeting the young, we have unhygienic meat sellers outside temple entrances, we have noisy religious functions with loud music in open areas, we have garbage piled everywhere.

The challenge for the government is to enable Kathmandu to operate as a city with a nightlife that appeals to tourists while also ensuring that its citizens can move around safely at night and sleep peacefully.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)