No Room of One’s Own: The Housing Question in Delhi

A Joint Campaign of Centre For Struggling Women (CSW) and Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS)

Over many years Delhi has become a city of migrants. Students in search of a decent education and unemployed people in the desperate search for work have poured into the city in large numbers. The Government conveniently attributes the city’s growing crime rate, stress on resources, its ‘landscape degradation’, etc. to this movement of people. It adamantly refuses to acknowledge the fact that the condition city-dwellers find themselves in today is actually the creation of its own anti-people policies and the protection it provides to the landlord/rentier class in the city. To elaborate, the Government’s account of the challenges before the city clearly conceals the fact that the major crisis for city-dwellers, i.e. lack of housing and the need to pay high rents, is the result of landlords owning properties in excess and overcharging those who cannot afford their own housing. Precious little is done by the Government to check the excesses of these property owners in the city. Initiatives to collect property taxes are taken back almost as soon as they are launched and, pro-tenant clauses in the Delhi Rent Act are openly flouted.

The state’s collusion with landlords and the builder mafia is apparent in many ways. This is best reflected in a policy approach supportive of slum demolition, the lack of rent regulation, selling of government land at throw away prices to builders, little or no investment in the building of students’ hostels, highly priced government housing schemes (such as those introduced by the Delhi Development Authority), and in fact, the sheer lack of sufficient housing projects being launched by the government. Due to this undeniable nexus between the interests of the state and that of landlords, it is students and workers who suffer. Migrant labourers who come to the city are forced to live in sub-human conditions in slums or, to crowd into small rented rooms, paying most of their earnings as rents. Students coming from afar are also compelled to live on rent since most colleges in the city provide little or no hostel facilities. They too cut rent costs by sharing small rooms with each other—an atmosphere hardly conducive for study. In other words, the majority of students’ and workers’ monetary subsistence (money received from home and wages, respectively) is appropriated by landlords in the city.

It is important to note that the number of workers and students living on rent is no small number and that, it in fact, constitutes the majority of city dwellers. The magnitude of exploitation in this regard is hence, far from insignificant, and is extremely disturbing. Is this really what a city should be like—a place where most are either homeless or, are slum dwellers living in the constant fear of being ‘relocated’ (displaced), or are those forced to reside in private lodgings for high rents? It is time we locate the root cause behind the pathetic living conditions of students and workers in the city. This piece aims at providing a perspective that shows how things are connected and work to exclude the majority of people from resources and opportunities, and the right to a good healthy life. It is being circulated in the context of our launching a city-wide campaign for rent regulation and the provision of more hostel facility for students who come to study in the city. This Campaign, in fact, is part of ongoing struggles that CSW and KYS have been organizing in the past. These struggles have focused on the concerns of tenants, and basically, the most oppressed section of people working and living in the city. As a youth organization Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS) has extensive work in working class colonies across Delhi. It has collectivized women and youth of these working class areas on issues such as lack of water and electricity supply, the poor condition of government schools in these neighbourhoods, and the apathy of the local administration/police with respect to heinous crimes committed in such colonies. Similarly, Centre For Struggling Women (CSW) has been in the forefront in organizing militant struggles in the University of Delhi for basic infrastructure like hostels. Due to struggles launched by CSW in the recent past, prestigious colleges like St. Stephen’s have had to provide hostel facility to their women students. It is to be noted here that colleges like St. Stephen’s provided the hostel facility only to men students—something which encouraged many women students to give up taking admission in the college. Of course, with the extension of this facility to women students, the age-old chauvinistic culture that prevailed in the college was put to the challenge—in 2005 CSW’s member, Maya John, became the first woman President of the college. The current Campaign For Rent Regulation & More Hostels derives inspiration from CSW’s struggle to provide hostel for all and their earlier Campaign For More Girls’ Hostels, Safe Neighbourhoods And A Safe City.

We hope that what is argued below convinces all who read it, of the need for collective struggle. Indeed, it is only through collective struggle that we can actually expose and challenge the system in place.


Why Students: The reason why students migrate to Delhi in large numbers is that there is an acute shortage of government funded universities in India. Those that exist are in a poor condition and fail to accommodate the ever growing number of students aspiring for higher education. The reason behind this shortage of government universities and the poor condition of those that do exist is the paucity of government funding. Investment in education is less than 3% of the GDP! Furthermore, educational policies of the Indian state have been geared towards commercialization and privatization of education. Successive central and state governments have, for example, unhesitatingly recognized private colleges/universities. As a result, private educational institutions have spread everywhere, outnumbering affordable government-run colleges/universities. By strengthening the presence of private colleges/universities vis-à-vis government ones, governments have made education so costly that it has become inaccessible to the majority of Indian people. As a result students flock to the handful of government colleges/universities located in cities like Delhi.

The poor investment in education by successive governments has also led to the deterioration of regional universities, and hence, encouraged the creation of centres of excellence like Delhi University, Jamia Milia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University. It is only with balanced and inclusive development of different regions, that students will have well-established regional universities to study in. For this, of course, our governments need to spend more on education and the social sector as a whole.

A large number of educated youth also flock to Delhi in the hope of securing government jobs. The city is now “home” to many who crowd into small rooms just so that they can receive “coaching” for various competitive examinations. However, most of these youths are forced to go back empty handed after 5 to 6 years of such preparation, simply because there just aren’t enough government jobs to be had.

Why Workers: Unbalanced and non-inclusive development of different regions in the country has also affected employment opportunities of people drastically. In regions across India (Orissa, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Bengal, Maharashtra, etc.) the Indian state rules in the interests of Indian and multinational companies that seek to plunder natural resources and to raise a cheap supply of labour from the ranks of displaced tribals, agrarian labourers and poor peasants. Government after government, in its collusion with private business interests has snatched agricultural land, forests and other resources from poor peasants and tribals. Half hearted attempts at land reform and the withdrawal of various agrarian subsidies have brought ruin upon poor peasants, pushing them to commit suicide or to join the ever increasing rank of agrarian labourers. Even in “well developed and rich” states like Gujarat, Delhi and Punjab, exploitation is rampant and, industrialization and corporate farming (the usual indices used to calculate such states’ development record) are based on the ruination of the most vulnerable sections of rural society.

On being denied their lands, rivers and forests, those displaced are compelled to turn to cities like Delhi where employment at construction sites, factories and sweatshops, restaurants/bars, etc. can be found. Needless to say, the wages earned are abominably low and are a cause of much distress.


With their limited monetary resources, both students and workers compromise with their health and well being when taking up lodgings in Delhi. So as to pay the escalating rents students crowd into small rooms just so that they can share the rent with others. This uncomfortable living is complemented by poor fooding since most students try and survive the day on one or two meals alone. In such living conditions students find it difficult to concentrate and study properly—something which impacts their class performance greatly. One has only to visit places like Nehru Vihar, Gandhi Vihar, Christian Colony, Sangam Park, Gurmandi, Munirka, etc. to come face to face with students living like this. Of course, there are some students who take better places on rent but there too students face problems such as harassment by landlords/neighbours. Rents are arbitrarily increased and landlords get students to vacate suddenly on the pretext of something or the other.

For women students such private accommodations are even more precarious since landlords and male neighbours feel free to sexually harass them. This is why almost every woman student staying on rent has a horror story to narrate and feels vulnerable in such places. Some students, like those from the Northeast, are deliberately charged higher rents by landlords and, women northeast students are made victims of the worst incidents of sexual harassment. A very large number of students and youth in search of work come from places like the northeast. This migration clearly indicates the sheer lack of investment by the Indian state in these regions. Due to lopsided development in states like the Northeast, students are compelled to come to metropolitan cities like Delhi to study. Similarly, the paucity of jobs in these regions compels many to migrate in search of employment. For example, a large number of nurses who work in hospitals across Delhi come from the northeast states. Once here they earn a limited amount as salaries, most of which then goes to pay off rents.

The fact that a large number of students are compelled to live in off-campus housing is not only because a large number of them come to Delhi to study, but also because most colleges of Delhi University (D.U.) do not provide hostel facility. Shockingly, out of D.U.’s 76 colleges, only 11 provide hostels for outstation students! Considering this, most students who come to study in institutions like this can be found living in private accommodations. Affordable and comfortable hostel facility rather than being a fundamental right has become a privilege for which only a select few are eligible. It is worse for women students since they are denied hostel facility in many co-educational colleges which only provide this essential facility to their men students.

Just like students, workers who migrate to the city desperately search for affordable housing. Most end up living in slums where basic amenities like water and electricity are scarce. Safety and hygiene are a distant dream in such settlements since most of them have come up along the slopes of open drains and empty land beside the Municipality’s garbage dump-sites. These slums are either being pulled down by builders who want cheap land for their real estate business or, are burnt to ashes since fire fighting authorities take their own sweet time in reaching places where the poor reside.

Many workers also live in cramped accommodations in colonies near industrial belts of the city. Earning only between Rs. 2500 and Rs. 5000, they are forced to part with a large amount of their meager earnings as rent. What they pay for is a small room in which they and their five to six member family, resides. Needless to say, in these cramped conditions, discomfort breeds, tempers fly and unhappiness grows. Here too as tenants, workers and their families are devoid of basic facilities like water and electricity. It is a fact that in many such colonies, people are forced to queue up for water and the electricity supply is cut for nothing less than 6 to 10 hours a day. Undeniably, private power distributors in Delhi practice very selective load shedding, often choosing working class colonies over other posher areas. In working class colonies like Baljit Nagar where KYS has been extensively working, water reaches many houses every third day! In this regard KYS has spearheaded a militant struggle against the Delhi Jal Board Authorities as well as the water (tanker) mafia that operates in the locality. Similarly, in the same locality women’s lives were reduced to hell when rumour of a serial killer, i.e. Hammer-man, made its way into the public domain. Realizing the discontent and fear prevalent in the youth and women in the locality KYS carried out an investigative inquiry, following which it organized a huge protest outside the Delhi Police Headquarters. Through its inquiry the organization proved that rather than a serial killer on the loose, who attacked women and miraculously escaped the notice of other family members crowded into the small rooms/houses in Baljit Nagar, the assaults (and in two cases, murder) were actually incidents of domestic violence. As a result of the pressure applied on the Delhi Police, arrests of guilty family members began to be made shortly after.

Apart from high rents, workers and students’ problems are compounded by the poor condition in which the public transport system exists. With the acute shortage of Delhi Transport buses most of the time commuters are travelling in crowded buses, endlessly waiting for buses at stands/depots, etc. As a result, the travel to and fro from their workplaces/institutions to their homes is nothing short of a nightmare.


Recently, over the past two years as Delhi’s authorities have hurriedly prepared for the Commonwealth Games, conditions for tenants in the city have worsened. The preparation for the Games has, indeed, allowed the state to crack down on the most vulnerable sections of society. Construction workers, most of whom are migrants, are being overworked and underpaid at the various Commonwealth sites. The homeless, labourers, hawkers, and now students have had to pay the brunt for the massive construction work and subsequent redirecting of funds. Slums have been demolished and ‘relocated’ overnight, street vendors have been denied their rights, and now students too have been recently evicted from their college hostels in the wake of the Commonwealth Games!

The face of the Commonwealth Games is really less about the games, and more about the herding of poor people into ill-equipped resettlement colonies (in the hope of concealing the city’s poverty), cracking down on rickshaw-pullers and street vendors, evicting students from college hostels, and the brutal exploitation of cheap labour for the massive construction projects. It is time for introspection—when this country has little to boast of in terms of a mass sports culture, why should we sacrifice and celebrate these Games?! It is a fact that the same Indian state that is pouring funds into the Commonwealth Games’ fund, does little for its sporting community. So far governments have done little to build new stadiums and have invested precious little in the upkeep of existing sports infrastructure. New stadiums are built, old ones are renovated and Indian sportsmen are provided world class training only around certain “spectacular” events like the Asian Games some years ago and now on the occasion of the Commonwealth Games. In other words, a consistent and dedicated investment in sports is missing.

It is also a fact that till today sporting facilities are missing from the majority of government-run schools, killing the potential of so many young people to learn and specialize in sports. We find no sports centres in most colonies built by the government, especially JJ (Jhuggi-Jhopdi) colonies. The result of this is that only a select few (those who happen to study in good private schools or, live in posh localities that run sports clubs), indulge in sports. The majority of Indian youth learn to play in dry drains and the narrow streets of working class colonies. They cannot even dream of being professional sportsmen.

Of course, under the garb of the Commonwealth Games, landlords have hiked rents considerably. They had done so earlier too, when the Delhi Metro reached certain areas of the city. As expected, nothing was done then and nothing is being done now to control the fleecing of tenants. In its hurry to meet the deadlines of the Commonwealth Games, both the central and Delhi government have turned a blind eye to the growing problems of tenants. In fact, they have added massively themselves to the problems of workers and students by, consistently increasing the prices of essential commodities (pulses, vegetables, milk, petrol, diesel, electricity and even water) and taxes like V.A.T. By conveniently quoting the rising prices of water and electricity, landlords in the city have further dug into the pockets of workers and students living as tenants. They have also come up with disgusting practices like compelling their tenants to buy provisions from provision stores run by them in the locality!

On average rents have gone up two to three times this past few months. For students paying a rent of Rs. 3000, are now being charged an extra two to three thousand rupees. If they resist they are asked to vacate the accommodation. Realizing that students from colleges affiliated to D.U. have vacated their hostels temporarily, landlords have hiked rents, knowing there will be plenty of takers for their lodgings. Needless to say, these events are going to have long term repercussions for students even when the Commonwealth Games are over. The escalated rents are here to stay, as no PG is going to come down from a hiked rent of say Rs.8000 to Rs.5000, post the Games.


Since the problem of high rents, eviction, displacement etc. is a general one and affects not just one group of people in the city, it is important to address not a particular set of persons but the majority of city dwellers. Issues and demands should be raised in a way that they appeal to a larger section of people affected by the state’s inaction and its collusion with private business interests. In this way we connect concerns, struggles and militancy of different sections of people who are often segregated from each other due to the functioning of the system in place. For example, the student community and workers find themselves separated by work schedules, their class backgrounds, spatial settings/norms (in terms of workers being restricted to the space of factories and students to the space of their classrooms), etc. Of course, groups that can and should unite also find themselves segregated by wrong kinds of politics. By following initiatives that seek to particularize and defer the need to generalize issues of struggle, people come to raise struggles in isolation. Their militant campaigns lose steam, credibility and relevance since they did not tap on certain organic links between their concerns and those of other affected sections in society.

Hence, rather than particularizing the struggle against recent developments in the city, we must link up with connected concerns so as to expose how the “particular” (be it in terms of experiences, mobilization, etc.) is a false or exaggerated projection of the reality. The demand for rent regulation and affordable subsidized housing for all is a call that addresses all those living as tenants in the city. It is a potent cementing force in this regard. Of course, apart from raising common general demands, we must actively and consistently reach out to all those who are affected. Our action plans should include concrete mass mobilization of the different affected parties rather than mere information-gathering exercises, occasional meetings with them, etc. The latter is more patronizing in its approach to groups being reached out to. It cannot be our strategy to connect with the larger audience of people affected. Hence, the Campaign for Rent Regulation and More Hostels is working towards raising common concerns actively amongst different sections of people living as tenants in the city. We seek to encourage the student community in universities like D.U., not to raise the issue of rent, eviction, etc. within the limited sphere of the university alone, but also to become active participants in ongoing struggles raised by others faced with the same problem. We also aim at encouraging the student community to connect problems they face with larger questions of poor resource allocation, denial of opportunities by the system, etc. This is why we believe that demands such as provision of more hostels for students, housing for all, the removal of draconian economic policies like privatization of education and Special Economic Zones Act (2005), etc. are crucial for the Campaign. By raising these issues students are fighting the actual source of their exploitation and are strengthening the working class movement. Indeed, by supporting long standing demands/concerns arising from the working class movement, initiatives taken by students no longer remain sectarian (particularistic) in nature.

Friends, it is time we object and fight against people’s labour becoming someone else’s profit. By raising the issue of escalating rents we should realize that we are tapping on widespread social discontent. As tenants in the city, we, workers and students, cannot continue to watch our hard earned wages and limited monetary resources, line the pockets of greedy landlords in the city. It is time for collective struggle against landlords. We must realize that no longer can our individual battles with landlords bring us relief. We must step forward to give our individual struggles a collective form. It is only through collective struggle that we can pressurize the local government to administer its duties and regulate rents in the city as well as provide subsidized housing.


Indeed, our struggle against the rentier economy must not limit itself (in terms of ideas, visions and action) to certain immediate goals that are set. Our collective struggle must see this popular discontent and despair as stemming from the inequalities that capitalism breeds. Our fight is, hence, against a system that allows private business interests to control the economy and social life. The Campaign For Rent Regulation and More Hostels is just one of the forms our struggle against the system shall take. Through this particular struggle we must realize the significance and need for other larger struggles.

Of course, to fight a system we need a road map, and it is here we believe that the movement for socialism, both in the past and the present, will be our best guide and source of inspiration. This collective struggle by students and workers can draw much inspiration from socialist societies that built cities where homes were provided to all and where living spaces were redesigned so as to emancipate womankind from the burden of domestic chores (responsibilities that were earlier considered solely those of women). Socialist societies, despite several failures, have constantly endeavoured to provide the majority a home to live in and have developed community life in ways never imagined. In countries such as Cuba, the now dissolved USSR, etc. properties held in excess were confiscated and distributed to those who had lived as tenants for years as well as those who were homeless. Furthermore, socialist states invested heavily in construction of housing complexes, community/sporting/recreational centres, schools, colleges, hospitals, and entire cities—the driving force being the desire to accommodate the needs of all, as well as the desire to provide the majority the best of opportunities. It was in these very housing complexes built in socialist societies that individual kitchens (where women slaved away at back-breaking housework), were removed and community dining halls were created for each such housing complex. For certain segments of the society, such as students, endeavours were made to inculcate commune living and lifestyle.

We cannot create these progressive changes in our immediate social world but we can aspire for them and pave the way for their development and acceptance. For this we must begin to desire holistic and systemic change. We must realize that the actual resolution of the housing question lies within the struggle for and creation of a new socio-economic structure. In this light the Campaign For Rent Regulation and More Hostels is one step in that direction.

We Demand
• Rent Regulation by Delhi’s Rent Controller
• Provision of Hostel facility for students in every Delhi University college
• Funds allocated for renovation of existing hostels, be used for building larger capacity hostels.
• Construction of more working women’s hostels
• Provision of subsidized housing for all
• Institution of a judicial commission to inquire into the condition of tenants in Delhi
• Provision of more affordable public transport (U-specials, L-Specials, etc.)
• Public audit of the Commonwealth Games’ accounts

We Condemn
• Slum demolitions
• Hike in rents by landlords across the Delhi
• Eviction of current hostellers from college hostels
• Promotion of private accommodations
• The plunder of collective resources by private business houses.
• The anti-people policies of the Indian state


  1. […] general problem for migrants coming to the city (for further illustration of this point please see CSW and KYS’s paper). This is precisely why UCD’s “hunger strike” targeted the audience in Arts Faculty (a […]

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