It was around 3.45 pm when the trio entered a popular hookah bar near Belle Vue Clinic. They had expected it to be near-empty at that hour on a weekday, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. A staffer said it would take around 10 minutes for seats to be vacated in the hookah bar, which happens to be a separate room with the outer part of the popular youngsters’ haunt being a general cafe.
When the trio got led into the bar it was, as usual, shrouded in a thick haze of smoke with around 10 to 12 youngsters – aged roughly between 18 and 25 – lazily puffing away, relaxing on couches. A short while later, a schoolgirl entered the hookah bar with a friend – the girl conspicuous in her uniform, which the TOI employees identified to be of a reputable school located nearby. She looked no more than 16.
It had been hardly 15 minutes before the bar’s staffers rushed inside and one of them told the TOI employees: “Madam uthiye, police ayee hai (Madam, get up, police have come).” It took a moment for the message to register for the trio. One of them asked what the matter was. To that, the staffer retorted: “Hookah is illegal.”
By then, the regulars were already walking out. One of them muttered, “Yeh illegal hai kya? (Is it illegal?)”, as everyone trooped out like criminals being hounded out of a rave party. There were two plainclothesmen standing outside the door of the main bar, keeping an eye on the visitors.
There was some confusion around with most people leaving the bar at once. The TOI employees stuck around, choosing to sip their coffee and soft drinks outside, in the cafe. The policemen left within minutes, though no arrests seem to have been made. TOI asked one of the staffers what the problem was about since smoking in a separate enclosure was not illegal, at least not for those above 18. To that, he said there was a “licence problem”.
Senior police officers later confirmed that raids were indeed being conducted across the southern parts of the city and it was because the hookah bars did not have a bona fide licence. “Eight such outlets were raided on Thursday and nine bar operators were arrested. We have also seized their apparatus and tobacco,” said Basab Dasgupta, DC (south-east).
As many hookah bars were raided in the south division, too, with one arrest being made. “None of them had a valid licence. We have shut down all such hookah bars. They will be allowed to open only after they get a licence,” said DC (South) D P Singh. Friday’s figures were not yet available.
Commissioner of police R K Pachnanda said the “law will take its own course”.
Officials fighting for the effective implementation of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (Copta) in the state welcomed the police action.
“We hope this will be an effective deterrent,” said Dr K K Pati, state health department’s nodal officer for tobacco. “Provisions for implementation of the Copta are very weak in West Bengal. We have received complaints that in the name of hookah, these bars sell a lot of other illegal stuff. If they want to sell tobacco, let them get a proper licence for it.” He did not, however, directly name what the “illegal stuff” were.