The owners of marriage halls have been up in arms about the government not allowing them to reopen and causing loss of business and livelihoods to nearly four million people, directly or indirectly associated with the industry. The government recently hinted at lifting the bar from September, but the stakeholders say that might be too late
The bar on public gatherings, in March this year, led to the closure of restaurants, cinema halls and marriage halls across the country. While there has been talk of eateries being reopened and life returning to the ‘old normal,’ the owners of marriage halls have been protesting the government’s silence on their loss of business. Over four months later, the government finally hinted at allowing them to reopen their facilities in the first week of September, provided the number of Covid-19 cases show a considerable decrease around Eid ul Azha.
The government’s nod of approval — albeit with conditions — came in the wake of a series of discussions among authorities and the stakeholders.
But the hall owners aren’t satisfied. They, together with representatives of related industries such as hotels, restaurants and catering services, have again called upon the government to let them open their businesses in August, instead of September. They reckon that the fortnight’s time between Eid and the commencement of the Muharram ul Haram is very crucial for their business — if they don’t earn anything during this period, they will have to wait for the month of Safar to be over too. Generally, no weddings or festive events are held during these months. In fact, the business (of marriage halls) is unlikely to pick up before winter, which means another couple of months without work and/or money.
They have warned that if the ban isn’t lifted immediately after Eid, they will be left with no option but to disregard it and reopen in any case.
The marriage halls’ owners, their employees and those associated with allied businesses have been protesting since the ban was imposed on March 15 this year. Recently, they took out a protest demonstration against the government, in Lahore. The demonstrators gathered at the Lahore Press Club (LPC) and later moved towards the Mall where they staged a sit-in at Charing Cross. They were holding banners with such slogans as “Safeguard us from hunger” and “When will our businesses be restored?”
There are as many as 12,000 marriage halls across Punjab, according to Khalid Idrees, the president of the Punjab Marriage Halls Association (PMHA). Of these, at least 1,200 are located in Lahore alone. “Almost four million people, who are directly or indirectly associated with the industry, have been rendered jobless since March,” he says. “And if we count those part of allied businesses, the total number would rise to eight million. The government intends to lift the ban [on marriage halls] from September, whereas we want to be allowed to reopen from August 1, with full observance of Covid-related safety protocols and SOPs.”
Idrees is asking the government to issue an order to waive the rent of banquet halls and marquees built on government and semi-government land. “The banquet halls and marquees built on privately owned lands should also be compensated for the rent for the closure months.”
Jahangir Khan, vice president of the PMHA, poses a question: “While businesses like shopping malls, inter- and intra-city transport, airline industry, NADRA mega centres, cattle markets and places of worship are open, why is our industry being treated like this?”
The fortnight’s time between Eid and the commencement of the Islamic month of Muharram ul Haram is very crucial for their business — if they don’t earn anything during this period, they will have to wait for the month of Safar to be over too. Generally, no weddings or festive events are held during these months. In fact, the business (of marriage halls) doesn’t pick up before the winters, which means another couple of months without work and/or mone
He says that the governments, federal as well as provincial, have “failed to understand the negative impact on economy that closure of our businesses can cause.
“Ours is a mega industry,” he adds. “It is not only a major source of tax collection for the government but also employs hundreds of thousands of workers, including waiters, electricians, decorators, caterers and chefs. The government should pay heed to the woes of all these workers and allow no further delay in reopening of our businesses with SOPs.
“The banquet halls should be permitted to start booking for the month of August 2020.”
Khan reveals that the representatives of PMHA have volunteered a set of SOPs to the government for the safety of their guests.
Talking to TNS, the provincial minister for industries and trade Mian Aslam Iqbal says, “We are ready to let the marriage halls as well as restaurants reopen, provided the number of Covid-19 cases comes down. We are aware of the fact that these are hard times for the people associated with most industries, but mind you, we didn’t take this step to harm anyone. In fact, the government only wants to contain the spread of coronavirus.”
The minister says that the authorities have already had a number of meetings with the stakeholders during which matters pertaining to the reopening of marriage halls came under discussion. “Permission [to reopen] can only be granted after the final nod from the Cabinet Committee and NCOC [National Command and Operation Centre].”
He promises to take up the matter with the Punjab government which should carry it forward in the next meeting of the Cabinet Committee and the NCOC.
Iqbal also says that reopening of marriage halls is subject to strict observance of the SOPs set by the government. The SOPs entail that all marriage halls, no matter what size, must only book to 50 per cent of their capacity. This means that if a place has the capacity for 1,000 people, it will be allowed to host only 500 people for an event; that too, with strict observance of facemasks and hand sanitisers etc.
On a positive note, the minister says that the government might waive property tax on banquets halls and marquees for a period of one year and Punjab Revenue Authority might offer them sales tax exemption for two years.
On the other end, Mian Ilyas, the president of Lahore Marriage Halls Association (LMHA), isn’t willing to buy what he calls mere lip-service. He says, begrudgingly, “So far we’ve only got verbal reassurances from the concerned [government] departments; nothing concrete has come out of it!”
He also hints at taking to streets again.
The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at [email protected]