Informal rentals in Gurgaon: Lived experiences of renters

7 November 2019
Informal rentals in Gurgaon: Lived experiences of renters
TAKEWAYS FROM JOURNAL ARTICLE BY MUKTA NAIK

In an article titled, Negotiation, mediation and subjectivities: How migrant renters experience informal rentals in Gurgaon’s urban villages, published in Radical Housing Journal, Mukta Naik explores the experience of low-income migrant renters in the informal rental markets of Gurgaon that are controlled and managed by village landlords. The article builds on qualitative fieldwork conducted in Nathupur village in 2013-14 and Sikanderpur village in 2017, both urban villages bordering Delhi and some of the earliest to experience land acquisition and formal sector private real estate development in Gurgaon, to shed light on living conditions, nature of landlord-tenant relationships and strategies of mediation adopted by migrant renters.

Highlighting takeaways from the article, this blog describes how informal rentals – broadly understood as housing located in settlements without formal tenure and/or without registered lease documentation – are organised in Gurgaon and offers insights into the lived experience of migrant renters in urban villages, which have absorbed the lion’s share of rural-urban migration into the city especially in the 2001-2011 decade.

Types of Landlordism

Naik builds on London School of Economics Professor Sunil Kumar’s work to classify landlords in informal rentals into three types: subsistence, petty-bourgeois and petty-capitalist. It is often the landlord household’s caste position within the village and the community that determines the kind of landlordism they exhibit. Closely related is the access to land and capital that they have, the latter a function of how much agricultural land they sold to private developers when this part of Gurgaon city was being developed in the ‘80s.

TYPE OF LANDLORD

CHARACTERISTICS

CASTE

‘Subsistence’ landlords

Subdivide extremely small lots (20 sq. m in India) and use the rent to supplement essential consumption

Dalit

‘Petty-bourgeois’ landlords

Not forced to rent out, but choose to do so to supplement their income and make improvements to their housing

Ahir caste (Yadavs)

‘Petty-capitalist’ landlords

See renting as a business proposition and invest in the purchase of additional lots to build accommodation to rent out, with an intent to accumulate capital

Ahir caste (Yadavs)

Rental typologies: Affordability and living conditions

Urban villages in Gurgaon exhibit a range of informal rentals for migrant tenants with different levels of income and varying expectations in terms of amenities, privacy and security. Naik’s earlier work describes the range of informal rental housing available in urban villages in Gurgaon, from shacks with temporary construction to the ubiquitous tenements and increasingly one-room sets for middle-income renters. Rental prices are higher for properties with better quality of construction and migrant renters opt for housing that they can afford and that is near their workplace.

While informal rentals are successful is creating housing supply across price points, the levels of service are generally low because urban villages are under serviced, with severe water shortage issues and inadequate sewer networks. And even though landlords and tenants suffer because of this, additional strictures like rationed water, overpriced electricity, poor construction quality and poor light and ventilation means that renters particularly experience crowding and poor living conditions.

Perception influences contractual arrangements

Despite the unequal power relations, however, Naik finds that landlords depend significantly on rentals for household incomes and migrant tenants share a symbiotic relationship with the landlord, representing them as sometimes benevolent and at other times oppressive in their accounts. Perhaps because of this, the ubiquitous oral form of contract with exclusively cash payments, is not seen as a tool of exploitation by tenants. While landlords can enforce oral contracts through the mere threat of violent repercussions, which acts as a deterrent for rent defaults, tenants leverage informality to move through the city flexibly as they seek work. Emerging forms of documentation like police verifications, employer endorsements and tenant registrations in the wake of growing paranoia around security, terrorism and illegal refugees in India’s national discourse, indicate some start points for thinking about formalisation. Clearly, perception matters in contractual agreements. The wide use of oral contracts and the underlying forms of trusts, as well as contrasting moves towards documentation, complicate the notions of secure occupancy in the context of informal rentals.

Landlord-tenants relations inherently unequal, exploitative

Landlord-tenant relations remain inherently unequal across the board. Migrants cannot contend with the political power that landlords have. They maintain this by colluding to keep migrants off electoral rolls, mostly by refusing them proof of address that would enable migrants to register as local voters.

These unequal power relationships result in certain specific forms of exploitation. Migrants are often considered captive customers and forced to buy rations from the landlord’s grocery store or that landlords impose behavioural norms on tenants. Tenants report particular discomfort with the surveillance that they are subjected to by landlords, who often have a shop on the street level, which can be used to watch the comings and goings of tenants. This surveillance is ostensibly intended to ensure that tenants do not overcrowd or damage their premises and use water responsibly, but also to monitor visitors. Surveillance assumes moralistic overtones, seeking to ensure that tenants of opposite genders do not mix, outside of marriage. Tenants also face discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and gender in informal rental housing. In Gurgaon, surveillance is particularly harsh for unmarried women and young girls.

Despite the inequality, Naik finds points of connect between landlords and tenants. Subsistence and petty-bourgeois landlords often have close and long-term relationships with their renters, often going out of their way to help them; not hiking rents, permitting time extensions on rent payments, helping them start small businesses. Tenants in larger rental clusters often did not know their landlord directly, but in several cases trusted caretakers acted as intermediaries, smoothening daily functioning of tenements.

Experiences of discrimination and exploitation notwithstanding, tenants commonly characterise the landlord as ‘good’ or ‘helpful’. Landlords see themselves as protectors of tenants, with nearly every landlord in the sample mentioning their role in resolving disputes amongst tenants. The tenant’s status in the urban village appears to be affiliated with that of the landlords, for instance, tenants of politically powerful, rich or upper caste landlords enjoyed an implicit protection from harassment.

Mediation and negotiation helps migrants gain footholds

Within this context, Naik finds that migrant tenants leverage informal rentals in particular ways to secure a small foothold in Gurgaon’s urban economy. The diversity of rental typologies helps migrants find housing of varying quality at price points that suit their income situations. They use the flexibility that oral contracts offer to move ‘through’ the city, as they seek remunerative work. Migrants routinely use praise for their landlords as a way to appease them, while simultaneously being vocal about their negative experiences. Exploiting the economic dependence of landlords on rental incomes, they carefully navigate the good landlord/bad landlord narrative to carve out independent identities over time, to achieve regular employment and local identification papers to enable a long-term stay in the city. In contrast to these subtle negotiations, female renters from northeast India resist the objectification they face from male landlords and village residents in Sikanderpur simply by continuing to wear westernised clothing and claiming the streets as retail customers and pedestrian commuters. By not cooperating with the patriarchal norms that landlords seek to impose, these women exhibit what Scott calls ‘everyday forms of resistance.

The full article can be accessed here

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.