Tensions have started to mount between landlords and tenants over rent collection as the nation enters the third phase of the COVID-19-induced lockdown in May. In the national capital, though the people tuned in to requests for benevolence made by both the Prime Minister and the Delhi Chief Minister, it failed to substitute for a policy response, as the ground realities show.
The workers, who were inevitably the first to be hit by the half measures of the governments – central and state – are also joined by the students who are now facing a barrage of phone calls, accompanied by threats, from renters over pending monthly dues.
Several such calls have panicked Sachin, a first year economics student in Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College. “The PG owner has been demanding full month rent ever since the month of April began. I have already paid him more than half of that month’s rent. Now with lockdown extending, he has started asking for May’s rent as well,” he said. “He has threatened that my books and belongings will be thrown away if I don’t pay the dues.”
Sachin, who shares a room with four others in a private PG in North Delhi’s Kamla Nagar, is currently at his home in Kerala, since he left Delhi in mid-March, soon after the Aam Aadmi Party-led state government ordered to shut schools, colleges and before the announcement of a nationwide lockdown.
“My father is a chef in a hotel who hasn’t received his salary because the restaurant is closed. He is the only one earning in my family. There is already a loan taken for my college education. How do I pay the PG owner when there is no earning at all?” he asked.
Also read: Noida Administration Forgoes Rent for Migrant Workers, Uncertainty Prevails in Delhi
A similar anxiety is gripping Yogesh, who stays in a single-bedroom flat, during the lockdown times. “The landlord says either vacate the place or pay the rent. I had come home before the lockdown. All my stuff is currently at my flat,” said the second year physical science student of Hans Raj College in Delhi. His father has an electronic shop in Haryana which, he says, is shuttered down since March 25 because of the ongoing lockdown. “He [Yogesh’s father] is paying salaries to helpers at shop from his savings,” Yogesh added, while speaking about the financial distress that his family is going through amid the lockdown.
To address the tenants’ woes, the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government issued an order on April 22, covering students living in the city along with labourers, which called for a waiver of at least one month’s rent and made forceful eviction a punishable offence under the Disaster Management Act. In case of a dispute, people were advised to lodge a complaint with the police.
This order, welcomed by the student community as a relief to many, however, pinched the house owners. Those, especially senior citizens, for whom rent on their property was the only source of income were the worst affected by the diktat.
“These are difficult times for all and that’s why rent must be waived off by landlords – but only those who can afford it, do it,” said BS Vohra, president of the East Delhi Resident Welfare Associations’ (RWA) Joint Forum, “What if the owner himself lives hand to mouth?” Such mitigations in times of crisis can be done on “humanitarian grounds” and must not be ordered by any government, he added.
This line of reasoning subsequently became one of the reasons why many students and labourers found themselves being harassed over pending rent payments. It was further aggravated as the April orders by Delhi government included no instructions for the month of May.
This eventually led tenants, who were threatened to be evicted, and landlords, whose own financial hardships didn’t allow for compassion, to reach a deadlock proving the Delhi’s government intervention in the matter to be ineffectual.
One such case was reported in North Delhi’s Model Town Police Station, where a complaint was filed against the owner of a private girls’ PG accusing him of harassment and “continuously” calling the residents of the PG. When asked for comments by Edexlive, the owner reportedly said that this is his only source of income and he had not earned anything in March or April.
Calls made to Delhi Chief Secretary Vijay Kumar Dev in this regard went answered.
The predicament was faced by many in the capital, which draws large number of students, as hub of premier educational institutes in the country. Late in March, in the wake of such pestering calls, students in Delhi decided to get together and thus formed Student Tenants’ Union (STU) – a first of its kind aimed to “collectively fight against landlords’ abuse of power”.
Also read: 65% Stranded Workers in Delhi Have Not Received Any Govt Aid, says CITU Survey
“There are over three lakh students in Delhi University itself and majority of them have to stay in private accommodations due to limited hostel facilities provided by colleges. The idea to form the union was to collectively bargain for the rights of a tenant – the need of the hour in the ongoing crisis,” said Varkey Parakkal of the STU, who is also a member of Delhi unit of Student Federation of India (SFI).
And it did gain momentum, as Parakkal claimed. “What started with a handful of students, now have been joined by over 200 in a short period. Not just students, but many workers have also contacted us. There is a common WhatsApp group made to coordinate and discuss the issues,” he said.
At first, upon being approached by a tenant, the union makes an attempt to reach an amicable solution by speaking with the landlord. “We understand the plight of landlords as well and that’s why we have also asked the Delhi government to compensate them for the loss in their incomes,” Parakkal said, while referring to a letter dated April 29 sent by STU to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, demanding “cancellation” of students’ rent during the lockdown period.
With much of the economic activities coming to a halt due to the attempts to control the novel coronavirus outbreak across the world, several countries have also not been untouched by the row over rent collection. Demands such as ‘cancel the rent’ are echoing in lockdown-affected parts of USA.
In India, responding to the rent woes, the Maharashtra government has asked landlords to defer recovery of its payments by three months. Meanwhile, Centre in its March 29 order had stated that owners cannot ask for rent for a month. However, confusion remain over rent collection for the month of May, even as lockdown has been extended in the light of continuing surge in number of infected cases.