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Didi in, nightlife out
Kolkatans, who had banked on a poribartan (change), probably didn't bargain for this. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is now ensuring that residents change their party habits. Her latest diktat is a midnight curfew for all nightspots close down by the 'Cinderella hour', dealing a deathblow to this city's famed nightlife. The party crowd, expectedly, is outraged, and owners of nightclubs say they have been forced to take various cost-cutting measures, including layoffs, to deal with the steep fall in revenue.
This midnight curfew was the fallout of a rape on the night of February 6 by men the victim had met at a discotheque earlier that evening. Mamata, who was left red-faced when police cracked the case - she had initially claimed the rape charge was concocted - hit back by imposing the midnight deadline. Till then, many lounge bars, pubs and discotheques in Kolkata could stay open till 2 am on weekends and one weekday. Till March 2010, the deadline was 4 am, but this was curtailed after an argument inside a pub triggered a brawl on the streets in which gunshots were fired. That none of these incidents - the February 6 rape and the March 2010 shootout - took place inside a nightclub was disregarded by the state administration which preferred to punish nightclubs.
"These knee-jerk policies make it impossible to make long term plans. Right now, all of us (nightclub owners) are struggling to survive rather than make profits. I've cut costs by not hiring DJs, discontinuing the services of our PR agency, cancelling events and retrenching staff, " says Vikram Puri of Plush, a popular nightspot at Astor Hotel. Puri says that sales last month were 50 per cent of the sales in March 2011.
Many feel the arbitrary imposition of restrictions show the city in poor light and convey a negative impression of the state. "These restrictions defeat moves by the present state government to project Kolkata and Bengal in a positive light. I'm hoping the government will realise this and lift the curfew hour, " says the general manager of Fortune Select, Amitava Guha Thakurta. His hotel has a lounge bar, Nostradamus, which has suffered a 20 per cent drop in sales since March. Vinay Jaiswal, director (operations) of Hotel Hindustan International where two popular nightspots - Underground and Virgose - are located says the revenue loss has been nearly 50 per cent. "We've had to cancel events and cut costs. If this midnight ban continues, it'll be difficult to sustain ourselves, " he said. Kenilworth Hotel's resident manager Sudip Kumar Maity says such measures "will definitely impact future investments in the hospitality sector in Kolkata and Bengal".
Big Ben, the nightclub at Kenilworth, has seen its revenues dropping by about 35 per cent. "The general impression is that this (state) government is not investor friendly and by imposing such restrictions, it is only strengthening this impression. When I go to Delhi now, my friends there tell me Kolkata has become an old-fashioned city that offers no fun for visitors, " rues Maity.
Bunty Sethi of Venom, another popular nightclub, isn't happy either. "Mamata Banerjee wanted to turn Kolkata into London. This city is turning into a vast village instead. I'm shifting Venom to a floor above its current location and it won't be just a nightclub anymore. I've had to retrench 20 people and my sales have dropped by 90 per cent. I had plans to open two more nightspots in Kolkata this year, but have cancelled those plans and am investing in Pune and Delhi instead, " he said.
Shisha, one of the oldest and most popular nightspots, has already shrunk from a 30, 000 square feet sprawl to about 10, 000 square feet. "We're cutting costs and have cancelled many events to cope with the 50 per cent revenue loss, " says the nightclub's senior manager (operations), Ritesh Shrivastava.
But it is not just these establishments that are hit;the state government is, too. "Bengal is a cashstrapped state and excise and amusement taxes are one of the few revenue generating areas. The inflow into the state's coffers must have decreased too, " says Puri of Plush. State excise officials who did not want to be named told TOI-Crest that though the excise collection figures for March have not been tabulated, the drop due to fall in revenue collections could be as much as 20 per cent.
"The turnover at the nightclubs is very high because of the steep prices of alcohol at such places. Hence, our collections from such establishments are also high, " says an officer.
The party crowd, including the city's celebrities, is angry. Actress Pallavi Chatterjee terms the midnight curfew "ridiculous". "The police should increase patrolling on the streets to deter crime instead of clamping restrictions. It is just incidental that the victim and the rapist in the latest incident were on an evening out, " she points out.
Percussionist Bickram Ghosh says the restriction makes no sense and advocates intensified police presence on the streets. "Crime has nothing to do with nightclubs and this midnight ban gives a very wrong impression about the city, " says film producer Arijit Dutta. Lopamudra Saha, who owns an event management firm, believes that this measure will have the opposite effect on the crime situatin in the city. "Nightclubs and related businesses like PR agencies and event management firms will have to lay off people to cut costs and the unemployed will take to crime. Kolkata's reputation is suffering and big events won't happen here, tourists will give the city a skip and its economy will suffer. "
But the state government, so far, appears unmoved.
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