The Maharashtra state cabinet, on Wednesday (12 January), has taken a decision to mandating all shops and establishments in the state to install Marathi signboards. From now on, shops in the state, whether small or large, will have to display signboards in Marathi language and Devanagari script in capital letters. Traders’ organisations have expressed their displeasure over this decision of the government.
The Shiv Sena-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government has brought this new rule in the run up to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections which are likely to be held in the next few months. Many are of the view that this decision on Marathi signboards is Shiv Sena’s attempt to consolidate its Marathi vote bank ahead of the various urban local body elections in the state.
The Maharashtra government has now made it compulsory for small shops and establishments — grocery shops, offices, hotels, restaurants, bars and theatres etc, — to display nameplates in Marathi across the state. The MVA (Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress) amended the ‘Maharashtra Shops and Establishment (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Service) Act, 2017’ which will now also cover shops and establishments with less than 10 workers.
The amendment also mandates that the font of the Marathi-Devanagari script cannot be kept shorter than the font of other scripts (English, Hindi etc). In case of violation, action can be initiated as per the provision in Shops Act, 2017. A bill will be tabled in the budget session of the Maharashtra legislature to bring the amendment into effect.
State minister Subhas Desai who holds the Marathi language portfolio said that small shops (with 0 to 9 workers) were exploiting the loopholes in the 2017 Act to evade the rules. “The government had received such complaints and there was a demand for redressal. So, today, the state cabinet decided to amend the 2017 Act to fix the loopholes. Therefore, the boards of small shops will have to be displayed in Marathi just like the big shops,” said Desai.
Why Are The Traders’ Organisations Opposed To It?
The MVA government’s decision mandating Marathi signboards has antagonised the traders. Viren Shah, president of the Federation of Retail Traders’ Welfare Association (FRTWA), the largest body of retail traders in Mumbai, has described this decision as yet another heavy blow to the traders amid the pandemic. The association has questioned the amendment and highlighted that the rule is in violation of a petition pending before Bombay High Court.
FRTWA president Viren Shah emphasised said that traders are already running into financial loss due to last year's lockdown, and said that the cost of getting a new signboard will put an additional burden of Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000 — depending on the size of the board — on every shopkeeper, and hence the opposition.
Shah clarified that the traders’ association has no issues with signboards in ‘Marathi’ language, but the unnecessary directions about the large font size are indeed problematic. “We request the state government to keep shopkeepers away from the politics of Marathi signboards,” said Shah, suggesting that the state government should not force such decisions on the traders.
Shah further informed that the Bombay High Court, in 2001, had stayed the rule mandating Marathi signboards in shops following a petition by their organisation. The high court has also prohibited the state government and BMC from imposing fines on violators.
In 2008, the BMC, following an agitation by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), issued similar orders only to be withdrawn later as the high court clarified that the stay is still in effect.
Now, if the Maharashtra government has to issue such an order afresh, it should have taken permission from the high court earlier, argued Shah, adding that the association could again challenge the rule after seeking legal opinion.
Shiv Sena Consolidating Its ‘Marathi’ Vote Bank
The Shiv Sena has traditionally been a party which has centred its politics around the ‘Marathi identity’. To this pretext, in the past two years, the Shiv Sena, an alliance partner in the MVA government, has been trying to consolidate its Marathi vote bank across the state.
This decision mandating signboards with large Marathi-Devanagari script is yet another step in a series of many such decisions. In July 2021, the Maharashtra government passed a bill amending the Maharashtra Official Language Act 1964 for the effective use of the Marathi language in administrative work in all government offices.
In February 2020, another bill was passed by the Maharashtra legislature making Marathi language a compulsory subject from Class I to Class X in the schools of all boards.
It is noteworthy that the Shiv Sena has alleged that the BJP government at the Centre has prevented Marathi language from being given the status of an ‘elite’ language. In this regard, numerous discussions were held in the winter session of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.
A special exhibition, urging the central government for grant of elite status to ‘Marathi’ language, was also organised by the state government outside the Maharashtra Vidhan Bhavan. In addition to this, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has also written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting the same.
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