In October 2014, tenants in Christian Colony in DU’s North Campus refused to pay rent until landlords agree to give rent receipts. They said that this would prove how rents varied in the same are. But when it was underway it was clear the strike wasn’t just about costs.
The colony has around 150 buildings controlled/owned by a handful of builders. Rooms are 6×6 feet to 6×8 feet. No light. Little air. Very few have attached bathrooms; usually 10 rooms share one bathroom. The water is ‘toxic’. Electricity bills are always much higher than they should be because of faulty meters. The rent: Rs. 2000-4500. There aren’t any rent agreements and older tenants generally pay less.
Most of the tenants are students of DU while others are civil service aspirants studying at coaching institutes. Many are from the Northeast and from Bihar – the landlords often refer to them as ‘Chinki’ and ‘Bihari’. Sachit, Christian and an ST, worked for a year in Idea cellular before he came here to prepare for competitive exams. He though he would manage from his savings. But he is completely dependent on his parents now. He shares a Rs. 6000 room and spends Rs 2500 on food. Coaching eats up most of his money. Naresh (M.Phil, Hindi) is from a BPL family. He pays Rs. 2000 as rent (roommate pays the same) and Rs.3000 for food. He affords all this because of a fellowship. He hopes to save money to help his family. He manages, but many others, he says, have to choose between rent and food.
Having to pay rent on top of tuition makes attending university difficult for many, even if one is willing to live in such conditions. Quite a joke: You have to get a degree, spending years doing something you usually don’t like to do, so as to work more. You work so that the university can produce knowledge and disciplined workers, claim its profits, and in the meanwhile pay the landlord too! Why must we pay in order to work for someone else, and in order to learn to work for someone else? Sometimes this question did arise during the strike. Their immediate demand was for rent receipts and for standardization of rent, but the protesters were also asserting their Right to Accommodation. It is important to see what this demand means, even if it wasn’t pursued eventually. These students were asserting that by virtue of being in the university, they deserve full and free housing. Why should we pay or deal with landlords, or put up with poor living conditions?
We are fulfilling a social need – we are producing knowledge and learning to be workers. Of course, as with other workers, no point asking for rights! They have to be taken!
Slowly more and more started to discuss the problems with high and varying rents, discrepancies in electricity bills, unclean surroundings. They organized an informal meeting, “Chai pe Charcha” near JNU to assess the breadth of the issue. They did their research. They learnt that the area is an Archeological Survey of India site, and so much construction is banned here. They found out which buildings were under which broker/builder and did calculations about their incomes – 19 lakh to 20 crore annually was there estimate. They knew that resistance to giving rent receipts comes from landlords wanting to hide taxable income. They discovered that Delhi has a (defunct) Rent Control Act, which if implemented would lower the rents of their shabby rooms to Rs. 500. They organized and spoke to all students in the colony about the rent strike, which eventually started with a 7-day hungerstrike in front of the colony.
The demands: (1) Implement the Rent Control Act and regularize the colony; (2) Mandatory issuing of rent receipts; (3) Better electricity, water and sanitation facilities; and (4) the rent was to be fixed after assessment by a Tribunal under the rent control act.
After a lot of stalling the landlords conceded to some demands. They reduced and fixed the rents of rooms, and agreed to give rent receipts. This was indeed a victory for the tenants. The inclusion of the rent control in the list of demands had an interesting consequence. The students received support from street vendors of Patel Chest, who shared with the tenants the problem of regularization of shops. Clearly, pitching the struggle (possibly inadvertently) in a way that aligned it with that of the wider population increases pressure on the powers that be. What is more, it creates the potential for widening the scope of both struggles.
But this struggle seems to be at an end. The rent reduction put an end to the demand for rent control and right to accommodation. Later, some students reported not getting a rent receipt. What could have been done to push the struggle beyond the colony or beyond the limits of rent reduction? Where did the broader demands of rent control and right to accommodation go? What about the network formed with the street vendors and non-student residents? We also need to ask how such struggles can be organized in other areas.