A recent study by the Indian Council of Social Research found that there was a significant exclusion of Dalits and Muslims from available rented accommodation in the five metropolitan areas of the National Capital Region. The chances of Dalits and Muslims finding rented accommodation or a house fell in the event of a face to face meeting between the prospective tenants and house/flat owners. The academics involved in the study discovered a significant “market failure”, wherein even financial prosperity, “does not allow you to buy your way out of discrimination”.
The study presented a damning indictment of social discrimination prevalent in our urban centres where, “non-monetary motive often prevails among landlords renting out houses”. Such segregation extends from outright refusal for accommodation to differential terms and condition on rent agreements, as compared to tenants who do not belong to either community. Such events, unfortunately, are not restricted to metropolitan areas within NCR, as the recent controversy in Bombay showed. Recently a communications professional, was evicted from a flat she had rented in north-central Bombay only because she was a Muslim. The news report on the incident stated that according to the apartment builders, it was company “policy” not to have Muslim tenants. Such acts are reminiscent of segregation in the American South until the 1960s, which discriminated and disenfranchised African Americans in numerous such ways.
Such segregation of Muslims and individuals belonging to the lower caste are now commonplace in virtually every Indian city. As a senior political commentator, Praful Bidwai has stated in these very columns that segregation excludes such individuals from civic life and citizenship altogether. To punish discrimination against Dalits, India only has the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act). Although the Indian Constitution, under Article 16, is clear that no form of discrimination is allowed at the workplace of government, it does not have a law which protects citizens against discrimination by those in non-State institutions, which in this case contain both landlords and builders.
Lawyers and activists across the board have recommended the need for a specific legal recourse for the affected citizens. In the meantime, conscientious citizens and affected persons must file complaints against such prejudice and petition the apex court to seek its clarification on how the Constitution views discrimination in non-state institutions. Like the Net Neutrality movement, those affected by such discrimination must find a way to compel our political system to engage and act on these issues.