The Tyranny of Rent

(Text of a preparatory note to launch a rent waiver/regulation campaign in the city of Bengaluru, and later in other Indian cities. Housing and rent is a huge problem for the whole of urban India, especially for big metropolises. The pandemic has made this problem worse all over the world, and there are movements demanding rent waivers in many countries. In India, this campaign note lays out the grounds and issues for such a campaign.)

“What is meant today by housing shortage is the peculiar intensification of the bad housing conditions of the workers as the result of the sudden rush of population to, the big towns; a colossal increase in rents...The growth of the big modern cities gives the land in certain areas, particularly in those which are centrally situated, an artificial and often colossally increasing value…. The result is that the workers are forced out of the centre of the towns towards the outskirts; that workers’ dwellings, and small dwellings in general, become rare and expensive and often altogether unobtainable, for under these circumstances the building industry, which is offered a much better field for speculation by more expensive houses, builds workers’ dwellings only by way of exception...The building and maintenance costs of the house, or of the part of the house in question, enters first of all into the calculation; the land value, determined by the more or less favourable situation of the house, comes next; the state of the relation between supply and demand existing at the moment is finally decisive.”

Engels,The Housing Question  


The masses live in rented houses in the cities, mostly in single-bedroom houses and single-room tenements in working class colonies or in single-room row-housing on parcels of land to shanties in slums 1 . Majority of the population thus are tenants i.e. those who do not have any control over their own housing and are dependent on the vagaries of the rental market for a roof over their heads. Workers of all hues including informal, migrant, etc., students, professionals, etc. all depend on rental housing though the range depends on the class, from shanties to high-end apartments.

One analysis has estimated the composition of the working class in India. It states that India has about 461 million workers (some estimates put it at 470 million), with 80% of them working in the informal sector, such as in agricultural work and in micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), with not more than 10 workers. That is a staggering 369 million workers. The remaining 92 million workers are designated as being in the formal sector, but 49 million of them are employed as informal workers and called variously as contract labour and temporary staff, among others. If one goes by the employment status of all workers across India, close to 52% are in the self-employed category, which comes to 238 million, and those with casual labour status come to 24% or 112 million. Together, they constitute 350 million workers who form the core of the national informal labour base. The remaining 19 million workers and the abovementioned 49 million informal workers in the formal or regular economy—that is 68 million workers—also fall under the informal work category, which altogether comes up to 418 million workers or 89% of all Indian workers. It is further estimated that two thirds of all informal workers (or 60% of all Indian workers), totalling 278 million workers, do not even get the Rs. 375 daily wage (or earnings in the case of self-employed individuals) recommended as the national minimum wage necessary to meet their household basic needs at 2017–18 prices, according to a January 2019 report.

Thus, a majority of workers who contribute to the national income belong to the category of the working poor. Most of them negotiate their daily needs through uncertain livelihood opportunities that make them, in the words of Jan Breman “wage hunters and gatherers” and “footloose labourers”. Who are these workers? They are the lakhs of agricultural labourers and poor peasants, loading and unloading workers, rickshaw pullers, barbers and washer(wo)men, manual scavengers, garbage pickers, street vendors, domestic servants, auto rickshaw and taxi drivers, brick kiln workers and construction workers who migrate from villages to cities and towns in search of work, workers in repair shops and small workshops , roadside eatery workers and those in small hotels and restaurants, security staff who protect the middle class and the rich in their gated habitats, delivery workers who deliver food and e-commerce packages at the doorsteps of lakhs of homes and companies, and similar umpteen groups of workers bracketed under the informal sector status. This “cheap” workforce is one that has been manufactured to cater to global markets. Their welfare and rights have been bartered for economic growth. It is this mass of people who depend on rented accommodation.

Beginning with the “house advance” which has to be paid at the beginning of the tenancy, in some cases it is 10-months’ rent, tenants are in a very difficult situation having to pay annual increase in rent at 10% with no security and liable to shift to other accommodation at the dictates of the house owners and landlords. House owners, according to their own prejudices, discriminate in handing out tenancies, especially on the grounds of caste and religion, which is unaddressed and exists as a matter of rights. Single women find it difficult to secure rentals from house owners harbouring prejudiced notions of family and the status of women. We all face the practice of having a month’s rent deducted from the advance at the end of the tenancy. The house owners say this is to cover the wear and tear of the use of the house.! The tenant, thus, over and above the monthly rent, pays for the maintenance of the house. All in all, there are no checks on the unbridled powers and privileges of the house owners, even as the State fails to intervene in any manner whatsoever, resulting in a state of perpetual insecurity for tenants. As a matter of fact, for the tenant the rental house can only be a roof over their heads, a notional home and never a home in the true sense of the word.

The fundamental question though is why are lakhs and lakhs of people compelled to seek out rented accommodation and live under insecure conditions. Clearly the failure of the State to ensure housing for all is one key factor as is the fact that the financialization of land and housing has ensured that the majority of people will continue to rely on rented accommodation. In fact the rising rentals are pushing people into increasingly uninhabitable housing conditions. The increasing precariousness of livelihoods serves to boost the growth of informal housing especially in cities like Bengaluru, exemplified by the growth of the nele badige slums in the city. Without a doubt, growing rampant informalisation of livelihoods, job, wage, and social insecurity results in a majority of the masses depending on rented accommodation especially in worker colonies and slums without proper access to electricity, clean water, and other basic necessities. For those earning assured monthly wages, for instance garment workers, receive only the notified minimum wages which are insufficient as rentals become more expensive, these stagnated wages leave them vulnerable to meet these increasing rents. Indeed, housing insecurity defines their lives.

It is estimated that the number of occupied households in urban areas in Karnataka in 2001 was 33,91,662, which increased to 53,04,17 2 in 2011 and that there were 36,76,036 urban households in 2001 which increased to 53,15,715 in 2011.3 Out of the total population of Karnataka, 38.67% people live in urban regions.

The report on the Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Condition in India - NSS 76th Round (July - December 2018),3   which surveyed the distribution of households in urban areas, by tenurial status of dwelling units across the country, states that as far as Karnataka was concerned, 47% urban households had freehold dwelling units, 1.8% urban households were in leasehold dwelling units, 2% urban households were housed in quarters provided by employers, 16.4% urban households lived in hired dwelling units with written contract while 28.5% urban households were hired dwelling units without written contract. Thus, 45% of urban households, even officially, live in rented accommodations whereas in reality the numbers are higher.

It is necessary to reflect on the position that the Government of India has taken in this regard: “Incidentally the State acknowledges that although provision of affordable housing has been a priority area for the Government since independence, providing housing to all on ownership basis is difficult and or may not be feasible”.6 This, after it acknowledges the following: “These poor households live in congested conditions indicating that housing is unaffordable for a large section of population, be it ownership or rental. Even after interventions such as subsidies for housing loans and tax concessions, this segment cannot afford to own a house due to low disposable income, irregular income, ever increasing real estate prices etc. Further, affordability gap created by filtering and lack of creditworthiness of the urban poor prevents access to housing loan/finance.” Thus the State’s housing policy seeks to protect the interests of the propertied class aligned directly against that of those who cannot own property.

Thus, a majority of the masses will remain compelled to rely on rented accommodation. Incidentally, the national average monthly rent paid in urban areas is Rs. 3,306/- whereas the average rent for houses in urban areas in Karnataka is Rs, 4,940/-. It is estimated that the urban poor might be paying 30% of their monthly income as house rent without any incentives. Incredibly, despite various laws on rent and rent control, there is, in effect, no regulation of rent by the Government.

What is this house rent that we pay? In lay persons terms, it is the payment for use of a house, an apartment, or a piece of land, though the actual value of the land may not necessarily be the determinant of the quantum of rent. Without going into the theoretical meaning of rent, suffice to say that in itself, an house or land does not produce rent, but private landlords are not going to give up any land for free and will demand some payment for its use. Yet, this economic transaction is one that epitomizes the unequal balance of power between the house owner and the tenant. In reality, rent is not a mere economic transaction, but constitutes a social relation between the house owner and tenant, since it takes place within a particular economic and social context. This payment of rent comes with another price – the forfeiture of freedoms, the ingraining of dependence on the propertied class and the entrenchment of class. It is a facet of naturalisation of wealth inequality.

The failure of the State to regulate rent, in effect, is not merely its failure to address the structural economic and social inequalities that mar society, but serves to exacerbate these inequalities; it represents the interests of the propertied class. Considering that 80% are employed in the informal sector, this directly impacts their housing rights and quality of life. Thus, the masses suffer from this tyranny of rent, which is sustained by the State.

The current crisis:

The immediate context for this campaign on rent is the coronavirus pandemic and the unplanned lockdown, which are decimating the lives and livelihoods of the masses. Covid-19 has given rise to two concurrent crises – the health crisis, and the livelihood crisis that was a direct consequence of the unplanned lockdown. In fact the lockdown has exposed the precariousness of the existence of 80% of India’s population whose livelihoods are earned in the informal sector. As the ILO notes, ‘In India, Nigeria and Brazil, the number of workers in the informal economy affected by the lockdown and other containment measures is substantial. In India with a share of almost 90 per cent of people working in the informal economy, about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis’. The lives of workers in the informal sector have always been precarious, with no application of labour laws, no medical benefits, and no job security. It is this mode of precarious livelihood which has been hit most seriously by the lockdown. A pan-India survey points to the very vulnerable condition of workers today: two-thirds of the respondents report loss of employment and half of all salaried workers reported non-payment or reduction in salaries; 45% of the households did not have money to even buy a week’s worth of essentials and 74% of households were consuming less food than before.

Housing came into immediate focus with shelter-in-place, self-isolation, stay-at-home, and quarantine as primary global responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Far from focussing on protecting themselves from Covid-19, the masses are forced to deal with the lack of job and wage security, facing harassment from creditors, as also the housing insecurity now, unable as they are to pay rents. With a steady income extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future, facing unrelenting house owners and a State that is refusing to step in to protect the tenants, housing instability and probable homelessness is a distinct reality for the masses.

Thus, even as the masses are struggling to make ends meet, they are forced into rent debt and are facing eviction even as the State refuses to step in and protect their right to shelter. Ironically while the mantra to ward off Covid-19 is stay-at-home, it is this very house that the masses stand to lose.

As such, the right to secure shelter must become the central object of any public policy intervention and housing must be assured.

Conclusion and demands:

India has witnessed glorious peasant struggles through history, especially during the freedom struggle, and most notably the Tehbhaga struggle, Telengana struggle, Naxalbari, Bhojpur, etc. Fighting non-cultivating, rent-collecting landlordism was the central slogan of the militant peasant struggles, who also demanded land-to-the-tiller.

Thus, a political and social struggle is fundamental to challenge the existence and distribution of rent and landlord-property-tenant relations. Unfortunately there has been no struggle of tenants against landlordism in urban areas except for those intermittent struggles of slum dwellers in some parts of the country. Having said that it is important to understand that society, for a variety of reasons including the daily struggle to make ends meet, has become increasingly atomised. Further, the category of tenants is not homogeneous and spans all age groups, incomes, and educational and professional backgrounds. It is also divided also along caste, religious, and political lines. The identification as a citizen, possessing of freedoms and rights, is a lagging project. In fact, building a class consciousness would be a great challenge when faced with the internalisation (acceptance and  justification) of urban zamindari by the masses. As such new forms of organisation and struggle have to be formulated in this unique battle in urban India.

As an approach though, the defining principle for any tenant related struggle would be privileging the interests of those who do not have control over their own homes against those of the propertied class. This is not a movement to reform the landlords and house owners; it is one to alter the property relations and fight the hegemony and domination of the propertied class. Thus, the real aim should not be the regulation and reduction of rents, but the abolition of the notion of rent itself, since it is nothing more than a plunder of the working class. Yet the challenge remains to frame the struggle from a long-term perspective; whether it is a struggle for rent justice or against rent itself or for tenant protection or for social housing.

Struggles of urban tenants for justice are amply evident, though not in India. Even today, in the aftermath of the pandemic, rent strikes are echoing across the world from tenants who cannot afford to pay rent and and who are thus facing a survival crisis. Calls for rent strikes started in mid-March and have picked up steam through April, particularly across Europe, South America, New Zealand, North America, etc. Rent strike demands include cancelling rent for everyone unable to pay during the duration of the coronavirus crisis, freezing rental prices, suspending utility payments, housing the unhoused, and expropriating housing owned by banks and vulture funds. Tenants’ unions have reported 16,000 renters on strike across Spain since April 1st, while a new “massive wave” of rent strikes is being anticipated in New York from May onwards.11

It is against this background that the masses now face the imminent prospect of evictions for non-payment of rent in the aftermath of the pandemic. It goes without saying that the pandemic and the lockdown has not affected all sections of society equally; on the contrary, it has only amplified the livelihood insecurity and housing precarity of the masses.

Any campaign at this juncture could make the following demands:

  1. Urgent housing protection measures ought to be taken placing moratoriums on evictions, banning cutting off of basic utilities and cancelling rental payments
  2. Decriminalizing of all slum settlements and informal forms of housing, and undertaking mass social housing projects
  3. The approach of the State should be towards retention of existing housing tenancies and initiating social housing for those without houses.
  4. Regulate rents and maintain a register of house owners.

“Right to a house, right to this city”
“No evictions”
“Cancel all rent payments”
“Social housing for social justice”
“No more house hunting, no more rent”
“We need homes, not temporary houses”
“Tenants organise, fight for your right to a home”   

  • 1  There are several distinct types of slums, from declared and undeclared (or notified, recognized, and unrecognized) slums on one end of the spectrum to private-land rent slums (nele badige slums) at the other. Common though are the inadequate sanitary and drinking water facilities, and unhygienic living conditions. All these low-income settlements have poorly built tenements with the worst-off slums having plastic sheet houses supported on poles. Usually the residents of the notified slums are Bangalore locals, and there is a rental market in these slums. The row-housing worker colonies are primarily inhabited by inter-state migrant workers, while slums faring worst, nele badige slums, house recent migrants from North Karnataka and the adjoining states, as also extremely poor migrants from West Bengal and other northern states. Significantly, majority of the residents belong to the Dalit and Muslim communities, with OBCs and Christains being the second largest groups
  • 2 “HOUSING - Statistical Year Book India 2018” accessible at, Table-28.1 (A) titled “Occupied Residential Houses And Households In The Country”
  • 3“NSS Report No. 584: Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Condition in India” available at, Statement 20.1: Percentage distribution of households by tenurial

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