Rent issues as an ignored COVID stress point

The second wave has amplified the issue of rent which does not draw much attention as food and income support do

May 08, 2021 12:02 am | Updated July 06, 2022 12:19 pm IST

Migrant labourers, who returned to Bhubaneswar, walk to home from the railway station as public is banned during a lockdown imposed by the State government on May 5, 2021.

Migrant labourers, who returned to Bhubaneswar, walk to home from the railway station as public is banned during a lockdown imposed by the State government on May 5, 2021.

As State governments have begun implementing weekend curfews and lockdown-like conditions amid the second wave of COVID, there is another issue that is emerging — rent crises within informal rental housing markets. For example, domestic workers in Jaipur, Rajasthan, have begun reporting to the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union (RMKU) that landlords have only one line: “ Pichli baar maaf kar diya tha, iss baar nahi karenge (The landlords say they will not be waiving any rent this time).”

Trauma returns

Meanwhile, reports of loss of livelihoods, in an eerie echo of 2020, have begun. In a crisis, the issue of rent does not get as much attention as food and income support do. Yet, the findings from a survey of 500 domestic workers in Jaipur by the RMKU and the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) showed that rent formed 40% of their average expenses in the first five weeks of the lockdown in 2020, was a majority component of debt post the lockdowns, and was a key component of the vulnerability of urban workers. This is not just true of domestic workers. Reports by the Stranded Workers Action Network showed that fear of rent payments was one of the main reasons cited by migrants in their decision to leave cities and walk along highways.


It is imperative that we learn from the lessons of last year and protect the rental housing of informal workers early, effectively, and expansively. How should this be done? In February, we learnt crucial lessons from follow-up interviews with 76 domestic workers in Jaipur to see what had happened to rental housing through last year, and what lessons it offers for better protections this year.

Unenforceable moratoria

On March 29, 2020, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in an order said , “Where ever the workers, including the migrants, are living in rented accommodation, the landlords of those properties shall not demand payment of rent for the period of one month.” It was an order that largely failed. It was vague (was the rent to be waived or just deferred?); offered no relief to landlords (many of whom rely on rent for their own sustenance, not unlike their tenants); and unenforceable in a market with no written rent agreements. Further, there was no apparatus to monitor the enforcement of this order. In most cases, it was the tenants who had to negotiate with their landlords and request for leniency. When one of our interviewees, Meena ( name changed ) cited the state announcement to her landlord, she was told, “ Yeh sab sunne ka hai, koi maaf nahi karega (All of this is impractical, nobody will actually waive the rent).”

Some landlords waived off rent for a month or two while others agreed to defer the rent. A few made no compromises and expected the rent to be paid on time, sometimes employing threats and coercion. Interviews show that domestic workers had to make difficult trade-offs, redirecting money reserved for necessary expenses such as food, school fees, and life savings to be able to pay rent and retain a roof over their heads. With pending rent and school fees worsening with no money coming in, many domestic workers had to borrow from informal moneylenders. Even in cases where the rent was deferred, it led to a piling up of debts for domestic workers who took more than a few months to get even a part of their jobs back. Some domestic workers borrowed from their employers, on the condition of paying it off with their work over the next few months, which meant a further paucity in income.

Rent is particularly pivotal for workers who do not consider themselves migrants. For all the domestic workers we interviewed, returning to their villages was not an option. This was both because of their investments in decades of life in the city where, for many, their children were born, as well as the lack of jobs in the village, no skills for agricultural employment, and the absence of social ties. As Mangal ( name changed ) said, “ Bachche yaha padayi karte hain, hum bhi shuru se yahin hai toh jaise ab gaanv me kheti-baari ka kaam hai kuch nahi aata hai, toh me wahaan baske karungi kya ? (The children are studying here, we have also been living here since the start, we do not even know any farm work, so what will we do after settling there?)” The only condition that renders such workers as “migrant” is their exclusion from the State programmes because they have not been able to get, for example, local ration cards despite years of trying. As Sindhu ( name changed ) narrates, “ Hum toh na Bangal ka ho gaya naa Rajasthan ka ho gaya, hum toh aatankwaadi ho gaye naa ? (We are neither of Bengal, or of Rajasthan, are we terrorists?”) Rent anchors the lives workers have built; it must be seen as a key part of the urban social safety net, as critical as food and wage.

Some solutions

First, a moratorium should be announced with a clearer enforcement mechanism and a clear distinction between deferment and rent waivers. Working with worker organisations and unions could greatly aid enforcement. Landlords should be offered means to access partial compensation for lost rent from the state shifting the onus onto them rather than on workers. Second, cash transfers being conceptualised by many State governments must treat rent on a par with food and income support. The amount of cash transfer for rent support can be estimated on the basis of the rental market conditions (₹2,500-₹3,000 being the average monthly rent among our respondents in Jaipur). Third, States can also aid workers through limited waivers on utility expenses. For example, the electricity bills and penalties charged on non-payment were quite a burden for domestic workers. Unlike rent, there was no negotiation possible for utility payments, with some workers reporting the need to borrow from landlords to pay electricity bills.

The second wave of COVID-19 has shown us the consequences of not preparing in advance. We cannot afford to not think ahead on the income and rent shocks that will follow this second wave as they did during the first wave. In doing so, urban safety nets must bring together food, income and rent so that no person should be forced to make an impossible choice between roti and makaan .

Mewa Bharati is the general secretary of the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union (RMKU). Juhi Jotwani is a journalist and an urban fellow from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS)

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