India's Anti Rent Movement
Image by Prianka Jain

Urban Millennials Are Calling for a Rent Strike in India’s Most Expensive City

Woke but broke independent hustlers in Mumbai facing job losses and pay cuts are fighting landlords threatening eviction, but this rent holiday could have long-lasting effects on the economy.
Mumbai, IN
April 16, 2020, 10:16am

As India extends its 21-day lockdown that now spills into May as well, the uncertainty and fear around the COVID-19 crisis battering an already bruised economy is becoming increasingly evident—whether it's impoverished masses of jobless migrants gathered in Mumbai or Delhi demanding to go back to their native villages or a surge in companies laying off or furloughing their employees. But amidst the cacophonous complaints that criticise the government for failing to shoulder the economic fallout through on-ground implementation, an important section of the society has gone unnoticed: the woke-but-broke millennials.

A whole generation of independent, young hustlers in their early thirties or mid twenties who pioneered the technological revolution at the workplace are now bearing the brunt of unprecedented job losses and pay cuts. As experts hypothesise that this entire generation—which graduated in the midst of a global recession and now find themselves caught in yet another devastating downturn—doesn’t stand a chance for socioeconomic redemption, millennials are struggling to make ends meet in an almost-apocalyptic setting. And while some of them may be able to shakily see their way through these trying times, the hefty cost of living in the city of Mumbai is pulling many down.

India’s most expensive city and financial capital has been one of the worst-affected in the coronavirus crisis, and experts estimate that due to overcrowding and density of population, it’ll be months before the situation normalises. However, while states like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have officially announced that landlords should not demand rent from poor workers and migrant labourers for the next couple of months, even suggesting that the local government would tide over their losses, the Maharashtra government hasn’t mentioned any of these measures. While a circular by the Ministry of Home Affairs states that landlords should allow poor tenants to not pay rent for a month, there remains a lack of clarity for the vague words used in this notice and who exactly qualifies as a “migrant”, since many young professionals who’ve found their way to the city to realise their dreams, would also technically fall into this category. And as authorities in Mumbai advise stricter social distancing and total discipline of movement during the lockdown, they clearly haven’t taken into account how an entire section of young Indians struggling to make it on their own will be able to pay rent to actually be able to stay safe at home.

Mumbai is famous for its star-studded film industry, ridiculously tiny apartments that consume most of their residents’ salaries, and its tag for being an insomniac. But as the city that never sleeps hits snooze on its regular functioning, the young Indians who migrated here to make it big find themselves stuck amidst sealed borders and growing apathy for their conditions. Threatened not just by unemployment but also unrelenting landlords, these millennial migrants are turning to online movements to stand their ground.

“As freelancers, we get work on a project-to-project basis, and due to quarantine, all our work has been put on hold indefinitely” Tejaswini Naik, a script supervisor in the Hindi film industry tells VICE. Concerned about how she would be able to survive in the cutthroat city on a shoestring budget of depleting savings, Naik decided to launch an online campaign asking the chief minister of Maharashtra to urge landlords to waive rent for tenants who desperately need support. “India’s finance minister allotted a budget for the below poverty line strata, while the rich keep making large donations in lakhs. But no one thought about us,” she states, stressing that freelancers, especially those who don’t live with their parents, should also be given the leeway to make deferred payments as migrant labourers are. Since the city of Mumbai is a magnet for those looking for a career in the film industry but who usually struggle for years to make it, this sentiment struck the community real quick and within a week, Naik managed to get over 20,200 people to sign her online plea.

Ishika Kumari, a 31-year-old costume stylist, is one of them. “I had to borrow money from a friend to scrape through April’s rent, but now that the lockdown has been extended, I don’t know how I’m supposed to survive, especially since the price of daily groceries has doubled,” she says. “So how am I expected to pay Rs 30,000 rent as well as buy essentials and also help out my sister, who is a single-mother to a six-year-old child, when I am not earning any money?”

As Kumari struggles to provide for herself and her family, others like 22-year-old Sagar Agarwal find themselves in a similar sinking ship. “My father, brother and I run a business where we supply cutlery and crockery to restaurants,” says Agarwal, opening up about how the lockdown has badly impacted his business for the foreseeable future. “Even once the lockdown restrictions ease up, it’s unlikely that new restaurants will reopen anytime soon, which means it’ll be a while before we can get back to business.” Agarwal’s biggest worry is that shutting shop would render most of his working family jobless. “I understand that some landlords need rent to survive, but if this continues, it will become really difficult to pay lakhs of rent every month when I’m losing almost Rs 50 lakhs worth of business.” Agarwal suggests a solution by which landlords either accept a reduced rent amount or defer rent payment until the situation stabilises. “If we have the support of the state government, it will make our argument easier.” The fact that freelancers or small business owners might also have to pay rent for office spaces that currently lie unused only exacerbates the situation.

While online pleas urging the state to look into this matter abound on the internet, a similar movement is also being seen on social media like Facebook, with groups created in an effort to alert authorities about this growing housing crisis. Even a group of struggling actors who find themselves stuck in the city without a paid project to provide for their daily needs are pleading with the state government to waive off rent for the month of April. Meanwhile the threat of eviction becomes too real for some, like in the case of the freelance architect who got kicked out from her paying guest accomodation for not being able to make rent on time.

But while many similar movements are gaining steam across the world including in countries like Canada, Australia and the city of New York, it’s essential to understand that on the other end of the spectrum, many homeowners might also be heavily dependant on the monthly rent paid by tenants to run their households, especially those who are pensioners or widowers who don’t have another support system. So even while rent holidays appear to be the quick fix right now, the landlords shouldn’t have to pay the price for the lockdown. This is probably where we need government-backed funding policies that can temporarily provide some kind of compensation or security to property owners. However, even this is easier said than implemented, considering that any kind of debt jubilee or rent holiday would have long-lasting consequences on a delicate economy. A detailed analysis of the similar housing crisis being faced in the US by CityLabs concludes that even if the government were to allow rent moratoriums and waive rents, this would discourage investors from buying mortgage-backed securities. And since these funds are pumped into pensions and insurance companies, it could adversely affect a large chunk of the working class. However, since freelancers work on a project basis, they anyway don’t have access to options like insurance. So, experts suggest that implementing measures like unemployment insurance and allocating funds on a case-by-case basis need to be prioritised by the government in order to overcome the dreadful situation, while providing security against any kind of eviction in the midst of the health emergency.

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