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Police crackdown aids shakedown in Mumbai

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If a Bollywood scriptwriter had to dream up a killjoy cop, he would base him on Vasant Dhoble. For the past month, Mumbai's police have been shutting down parties and confiscating bars' music systems in a drive to regulate the city's nightlife. Leading the drive has been Dhoble, the head of the city police's "social services" division.

A stocky figure in his 50s sporting a mustache, Dhoble has gained cartoon-villain status among hip Mumbaikers. An anti-Dhoble Facebook group has attracted more than 20,000 members. Urbane newspapers witheringly describe him as a teetotal vegetarian. Bloggers have shared video footage that shows him, armed with a hockey stick, roughing up employees at a juice bar.

The crackdown intensified on May 20, when officers broke up a party at a hotel. Guests were rounded up and blood-tested. Police cited the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, which states even customers must have a permit to drink. Dhoble is making a specialty of dusting off old edicts, since alcohol was banned in the state of Maharashtra, which the city of Mumbai -- then called Bombay -- dominates, until 1963. Many prohibition-era laws have not been updated, yet until recently were rarely enforced.

Dhoble or his officers also have shown up at five of the city's high-end bars this month, slapping fines on them for overcrowding or for allowing DJs to perform without the correct licences. At another bar, some female customers were detained on suspicion of being prostitutes, leading to a defamation lawsuit against Dhoble that was dismissed on June 20. Bar owners say turnout has dropped as nervous customers have chosen to stay at home.

Dhoble's crackdown highlights a wider grievance among Mumbai's business crowd, all of whom complain about archaic and Byzantine rules, be they city-wide, statewide or national laws. Bar owners say they need as many as 20 licences to run a single drinking hole, and as many as three dozen if music also is involved. Property developers grumble that they have to provide the original plan of a building they wish to overhaul. One art dealer is fed up with the lengthy process by which sculptures for export must officially be confirmed as not being antiques, even contemporary pieces in fiberglass.

The World Bank ranked India 132nd out of 183 countries in last year's Ease of Doing Business report.

Dhoble at least appears to be honest. Outdated rules create opportunities for graft, however, which is one reason they remain in place. A bar owner says when he was setting up a venue last year, Mumbai officials expected a bribe equal to the cost of each licence they issued. One licence cost more than $6,000. Officials ask the art dealer for under-the-table fees before sculptures can be approved for export.

A property lawyer says he thinks of corruption as simply part of the process, which is itself an example of how a supposedly go-ahead city can stay stuck firmly in the past.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 A17

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