CHENNAI: For a metropolis that does not have a designated ‘red light’ area for licensed and tested commercial sex workers, the recent crackdown on massage parlours and spas by city police under the provisions of Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956 was indeed a surprise.
Parlours, health clubs and spas fall under regular business category for which licences are issued by the Greater Chennai Corporation and no-objection certificates (NOC) are given by police and health departments. While the city has nearly 900 massage parlours/spas, only over 100 have all these licences.
There are nearly 800 applications pending with police and civic authorities.Lack of licences and condition violations are feeble grounds for crackdowns. “Anyway, as per Section 10 of Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, 1919, if orders on an application for a licence or permission or for registration for a commercial venture are not received by the applicant within 60 days after the submission of the application, the permission shall be deemed to have been given for the year subject to other conditions,” said a spa owner.
Pointing out that the objective of the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act was to curb abuse and exploitation of women, former director-general of Tamil Nadu police Bholonath said: “The AVS unit should focus on restricting the exploitation of women and girls and the core flesh trade.”
In a recent judgement, Madras high court has said: “It must be made clear that any business establishment which conducts the business without obtaining the trade license, can be taken cognizance only by the Corporation of Chennai and action can be initiated by the Corporation in this regard. Police will have no role to play insofar as running of the business establishment without trade license. The role of the police kicks in only when there is an offence under the Act.”
Following this week’s raid on more than 150 outlets, 63 were ordered to be sealed for functioning without licences. While sealing has been ordered as per the existing civic rules, for the raid the officers are invoking the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act provisions, which is curious.
In 2009, Justice K Chandru penned a judgment disapproving of ‘crackdowns’ on massage parlours. He said, “majoritarian impulses rooted in moralistic tradition could not impinge upon individual autonomy.” As a word of caution, however, he said there was no prohibition for police to inspect and take appropriate action in cases of criminal activities.
The December 2014 verdict of Justice V Ramasubramanian (now a judge of the Supreme Court) flagged arbitrary police action on massage parlours and asked the Chennai Corporation to invoke its powers and include the wellness business, specifying the activities for which business licences are applied for and issued.
Without any clarity of law and without specific complaints of prostitution in any of these parlours, police cannot barge in and take people in droves in custody. Be it massage parlours or spas, therapeutic treatment, beauty parlours, wellness centres, unisex salons and health clubs, police cannot interfere in their functioning without …….