‘Pub City’ is in danger of losing tag

IN PERSPECTIVE

The villain of the piece is the BBMP, which is the authority charged with issuing the OC to a building as well as the trade licence to an establishment to commence business in the premises. DH Photo

The success of any hospitality business hinges on five key factors: good food, good beverage, good ambience, good music and good service. But with music, one of the main ingredients, now missing from Bengaluru pubs due to a legal tangle, patrons have begun shunning them, leading to the closure of many trendy watering holes.

Bengaluru’s romance with the good times began with the setting up of United Breweries in 1915 to supply beer to the British troops. A turning point came in 1986, when Sri Hari Khoday opened the city’s first pub, Ramda, on Church Street, which served draught beer directly from barrels instead of traditional bottles. In 2010, the government amended the excise rules which led to a flood of microbreweries serving a variety of freshly crafted beers. Bengaluru is now dotted with hundreds of pubs, microbreweries and lounge bars, earning it the sobriquet, ‘pub city’.

Many of these ‘joints’ have become popular music hubs as they cater to the varied tastes of customers of different age groups, attracting a large crowd even from other cities. For years, they have nurtured young talent by providing a platform to budding bands, while some of the best DJs of the country have emerged from Bengaluru pubs. Now, they have all fallen silent.

While earlier, most upscale bars were confined to the central business district, they have now mushroomed in the suburbs and residential areas. Residents who are upset over the loud music disturbing their peace have approached the High Court, which has directed the authorities to ensure that the noise levels do not exceed the specified decibel levels.

However, it is the Licensing and Controlling of Public Entertainment (Bengaluru City, Order 2005) which has come as a major stumbling block. The order, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018, mandates that restaurants should obtain permission from the police commissioner to play live or recorded music. Though the original purpose of the order was to regulate ‘live bands’ involving lewd performances by women, genuine restaurants which do not indulge in any “immoral” activity are now forced to bear the brunt.

Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao has not taken the morality route but has denied permission to restaurants that are functioning from premises that have not been granted occupation certificate (OC) by the BBMP or the No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the fire department. National Restaurant Association of India (Bengaluru Chapter) president Manu Chandra has a point when he questions why only the food and beverage industry is targeted when most other establishments in the city, too, function without the required clearances.

But the police commissioner argues that he cannot be blamed if he is scrupulously following the rules while other departments are not. Rao cannot be faulted because pubs and bars are places where a large number of people converge and get intoxicated, due to which their judgment is clouded and reflexes poor, which can prove catastrophic during eventualities like a fire. The police cite the case of the Kamala Mills tragedy in Mumbai, where a blaze in a pub claimed about 14 lives, and the incident in Bengaluru where a couple fell to their death from a restaurant located on the third floor.

The absence of mandatory clearances has come to light only because the pubs have applied for entertainment licences, but what about the large number of small bars that play music without obtaining any permission? A majority of them are veritable death traps, having thrown every conceivable safety precaution to the wind. Why have they been let off the hook? Is the life of a poor man less important than that of the rich?

The villain of the piece is the BBMP, which is the authority charged with issuing the OC to a building as well as the trade licence to an establishment to commence business in the premises. The moot point is, how can the civic body grant a trade licence knowing fully well that the building does not possess an OC. While the builder usually goes scot-free due to his nexus with the BBMP, it is the hapless investor who suffers, as in the case of the restaurateurs. It is a matter of time before the law catches up with other businesses operating out of buildings without an OC, which would seriously dent Bengaluru’s image as an investment destination.

In the instant case, too, the excise revenue of the state is likely to take a hit as more and more restaurants may be forced to shut shop in the coming days. Bengaluru is a global city with a cosmopolitan outlook and the people have a right to let their hair down after a hard day’s work. Which is why their safety and security should be non-negotiable. It is thus time to find a via media to ensure that Bengaluru’s nightlife remains vibrant, while there is absolutely no compromise on the safety of the guests. Both the police and the pub owners have a point, but at the end of the day, it is better to be safe than sorry.

 

(The author is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru)

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