Cheers as Delhi lets ladies behind the bar

New Delhi: Twenty-year-old scotch whisky, vintage champagne. You can find almost anything in the sparkling high-end bars of India`s capital, except a female bartender.

Soon you`ll find that, too, after Delhi this week changed a century-old law that banned women from serving alcohol. For activists and alcohol industry insiders, it was long overdue.

"In an emerging, modern democracy like India, if you can fly an aircraft .

if you can be president of India, you should be able to work in a bar," social activist Nafisa Ali said, referring to previous barriers to woman that have already fallen here.

"Women should have the power to decide for themselves where they want to work, and not be governed by rules thinking women are not capable of handling themselves." It took the capital three years to follow a Supreme Court directive to fix the 1914 law, even as women began pouring pints in other parts of India.

Part of the capital`s reluctance may come down to the high-profile killing of model Jessica Lall, who had been serving drinks at a party in 1999 when she was shot by a politician`s son. Until then, India had happily flouted the colonial-era ban against women bartenders, but many say the ban was restored as a means of protecting women.

"There have been some unfortunate incidents," Ali said. "The government always tries to put laws in place for women`s protection .

But it`s not their business, it`s the business of the woman." The issue is not just about giving women a choice, or a chance to cash in on one of India`s new promising and lucrative careers.

Some say the $10 billion alcohol industry growing at least 10 percent a year still sorely needs a female touch. "Having women behind the bars will definitely be an asset.

They would soften things up," said Vikram Achanta, co-founder and CEO of bartending school "Tulleeho" a name that combines the Hindi word for getting high and the British term Tally Ho! But Achanta doesn`t expect women to be lining up for his bartending courses tomorrow. There are still social norms to contend with, and most girls would need parental approval and support, he said.

India`s alcohol taboos have helped keep the legal drinking age at 25, and the prices high a single bottle of beer can cost more than dinner. The stigma is softening, though, as the country`s economy booms, with a growing middle class and liberated youth now wanting to dine out in fine restaurants or party a night away at clubs or bars.

At such places, a bartender can make up to $500 a month that`s almost twice the salary of a schoolteacher. "Why shouldn`t women be allowed to join? Bar owners definitely feel the lack," Achanta said.

"I doubt the women will end up in seedy places, anyway. There are so few women bartenders out there now they can pick where they want to work".

Bureau Report