Guest control laws came into being in the 1960s against the backdrop of wars and shortages.

 

Politics and statecraft, we are told, should never be divorced from morality. But if there is anything more dangerous than governance without morality, it is governance with moralising. The Arvind Kejriwal government’s proposed cap on the number of guests in weddings, at the behest of the Supreme Court, underlines this truth. The victims of the move, if executed, could be liberty and economy.

This story began on 6 December last year. A Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Madan B. Lokur, reportedly said that commercial interests of the owners of motels and farmhouses, where big fat weddings take place, get precedence over the public interest. This, it lamented, hinted at a “very sorry and sad state of affairs”.

The bench, also comprising Justices Deepak Gupta and Hemant Gupta, said, “If every motel will have one lakh litre water stored with them and people of Delhi are not getting water, then what is to be done?” It also wanted to know as to “how much food and water is wasted in these 50,000 marriages” that often take place in Delhi in the marriage season. It said that municipal corporations “side with” banquet hall owners. “A balance has to be struck in favour of public interest.”

The apex court is correct in mentioning that the local authorities cannot be allowed to favour banquet halls. Also, it rightly underlined the importance of public interest. So far, so good.

On the next date, 11 December, Delhi Chief Secretary Vijay Kumar Dev informed the apex court that the state government agreed with it. “It is stated [by Chief Secretary] that some alternatives are being discussed and there appears to be at least two options that are available and two-pronged strategy is also being actively considered so that availability of food in functions and the number of guests is limited, and the quality of food is also maintained,” the bench noted in its order.

It affects liberty and the economy that the highest court of the land has been used as justification by the Delhi government for limiting the number of guests at a private function. This is tantamount to infringement of individual liberty. Ostentatious display of wealth may be morally offensive for some people, but curbing it by judicial orders or executive fiats amounts, in the view of some, to moral policing.

If somebody wants to splurge on the weddings of their children, it is their right to do so. One may find expensive extravaganzas insensitive if poverty is widespread, but there is nothing illegal about it.

The duty of the state in a liberal democracy is to let people do what they want to, so long as they don’t hurt others; and the duty of the judiciary is to ensure that the state does what is expected of it. If the state or courts do anything more than that, it is a violation of the fundamental rights of citizens.

If ostentation is against the backdrop of general misery—the bench referred to a news report about the starvation death of three girls—those indulging in it would be socially reviled. Let that happen. Let each individual consume less and lead simpler lives, for example by giving up cars and going by bus. By giving up the midday meal. But these should be left to the individual rather than be made into a command

After all, society usually gets governed by its own codes. We don’t crack jokes at funerals; we don’t play mourning songs at weddings. There is no law or Supreme Court order barring people guffawing at funerals; there is no regulation as to what type of songs should be played in parties.

“We can have guest control on one hand and regulation under the Food Safety and Standards Act where institutional arrangements can be made between the caterers and NGOs, who are providing foods to the destitutes,” Chief Secretary Dev told the Supreme Court.

Guest control laws came into being in the 1960s against the backdrop of wars, shortages, and the seemingly imminent Malthusian horrors. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri said in a speech: “Parties, dinners and lunches are not in tune with the times at all. At weddings, there should be no exhibition of ostentation. There is no need for many dishes to be served. Hotels and restaurants also have to keep in line with present day requirements. Austerity is the need of the hour and it must be encouraged by strong public opinion.”

That was then, the ship-to-mouth days. Today, when the problem is not of shortage but excess of food-grains, guest control is not just anachronistic; it also smacks of moralising squeamishness, judicial overreach, and statist excess. And, by the way, glitz and glitter are good for the economy. A KPMG report in 2017 estimated the Indian wedding market in the $40 billion-$50 billion range. Said to be recession-proof, it is said to be growing at an annual rate of 25%-30%.

Evidently, it employs lots of people; it is not just the commercial interests of big marriage hall owners that are involved; millions of people depend upon big, fat weddings for their livelihood. But the moralising crusaders have a blinkered vision; they only see the wasted food, not the millions of cooks, waiters, florists, etc., who get employment from the ostentatious weddings.

It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court has given credence to the Delhi government to meddle into a flourishing business and make the lives of people dependent on such activities enter into the danger zone of unemployment.

Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a freelance journalist.

 

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