‘Policy has no reasonable connection with preventing prostitution at spa centres’
The Delhi High Court on Thursday put on hold the Delhi Government’s guidelines banning cross-gender massage services in the Capital noting there was no reasonable connection between the absolute ban and preventing prostitution at spas.
Welcoming the order, spa owners, who had moved the High Court against the policy, said the Government has been targeting spas by delaying their opening after the lockdown followed by the guidelines to prohibit cross-gender massages.
Justice Rekha Palli said she was of the view that “this kind of an absolute ban on cross-gender massage cannot be said to have any reasonable connection with the aim of the policy, which is to regulate the functioning of the spas and ensure that no illegal trafficking or prostitution takes place in the city”.
Justice Palli said that while the authorities ought to have taken deterrent measures to regulate the spa centres against such illegal activities, it prima facie appeared that the policy to impose a blanket ban was framed without any consultation with professionals involved in spa services.
The High Court ordered that the operation of the policy will remain stayed till further orders. It, additionally, directed the three municipal corporations and the Delhi police to carry out inspection in their respective area within one week, and take appropriate steps for closure of all unlicensed spas.
The High Court asked the police to register cases if any illegality is found during the inspection, and pass the information to the municipal bodies for action.
The High Court’s direction came while hearing a batch of petitions filed by Association of Wellness Ayurveda & Spa and owners of spa centres, who were affected by the Delhi Government’s policy guidelines prohibiting cross-gender massages and the consequent directions passed by the municipal corporations.
‘Threatened by officials’
The petitioners claimed that many spas have been closed down for engaging in cross-gender massage and others are being threatened by officials on the basis of the new guidelines.
“Every industry, workplace and businesses have some bad apples but that doesn’t mean that every spa centre across the State is running a prostitution and human trafficking racket,” one of the petitions said.
The association said that cross-gender treatment has been “part of the traditional massage practices” and assuming prostitution to be only in the “heterosexual domain” is illogical. It highlighted that there are several places where men and women work together, like gyms and yoga centres, and singling out spas was not reasonable.
The association said that spa centres spend a “huge amount on training and skill upgradation” of their massage therapists and the structure of their functioning cannot be altered after the trade licence has been issued by the authorities.
“Defaming spa centres across Delhi as some kind of prostitution hub/brothels has severely affected the business of the petitioners as customers are scared to visit the centres which are already suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the association said in its petition.
Pooja Chatterjee, president of Delhi Wellness Spa Association (DWSA), and a petitioner in the case, welcomed the judgment and said that she hoped for a “permanent solution” to the prohibition on cross-gender massage services.
She said, “We agree that all unlicensed spas that run rackets should be closed but that does not mean every centre is involved in such activities. Spas have already suffered a financial setback due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, and now people are scared to enter spas because such a prohibition on cross-gender massages makes them question their safety.”
Ravi Tandon, vice-president of the DWSA, said he was discontent with the Delhi Government’s “behaviour towards spa owners”.
The Government had delayed the opening of spas after the first lockdown and they had to file a petition in the Delhi High Court to have them reopened, and this happened after the second lockdown as well, he said.
“Then it came after spas with the prohibition on cross-gender massages and the BJP-led civic bodies also made a similar decision for political gains. Banning cross-gender massages is not a solution to stopping illegal sex trade. The Madras High Court had also highlighted this in its 2019 order,” Mr. Tandon said, adding that the Delhi Government had not notified the guidelines to implement a ban on cross-gender massages.
New licence policy
Earlier, the South and East Delhi Municipal Corporations had announced a ban on cross-gender massages. The South civic body had said that the prohibition was approved under a new licence policy for spas and massage centres and that it was approved by “Lieutenant-Governor Anil Baijal”.
East civic body Mayor Shyam Sunder Aggarwal said that the civic body “will respect the Delhi High Court’s order”.
“However, I feel that the Delhi High Court will go back on its decision and will find that our move to prohibit cross-gender massages was right. I believe that the maximum number of these spa establishments are linked to problematic activities. The court will also realise this and our aim is to only prevent illegal activities,” he said.
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