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Global battles a lesson for Delhi

Pleasantries had been exchanged, the papers for renting out the house were being prepared, and the young woman from Manipur had already started planning how she would do up her new home, report Tenzin Nangsyal and Robbie Corey-Boulet.

delhi Updated: Jun 15, 2009 02:26 IST

Pleasantries had been exchanged, the papers for renting out the house were being prepared, and the young woman from Manipur had already started planning how she would do up her new home.

That is when the landlord dropped the bomb: “Sorry, but we are from a respectable family.” He refused to rent the house to her.

“But what did he mean by ‘a respectable family’? Does the definition of respectable change with a person’s looks?” said Yurreipem Arthur, a designer with leading fashion magazine.

“It was disgusting,” she said.

Discrimination on the basis of ethnic identity is widespread and not so subtle – and experts say India and its capital city could take lesson from some other countries that have tried to tackle this problem.

In Brazil, a country known for its sprawling favelas, or shanty towns, the government enacted a statute in 2001 that guaranteed the “right to the city” for all citizens, a move praised by housing rights activists.

Legislation in the United States provides legal recourse to citizens who believe they have encountered discrimination.

In India – and its national capital, however, it is a different story.

“Never ever in my life have I felt so humiliated and angry at the same time,” said Arthur, who has lived in Delhi for 12 years. “Had my father not been there, I think I would have picked up a fight. They're respectable but we're not, so he's not renting the house to us?"

Asked to compare India’s housing rights record with that of other nations, New Delhi-based activist Dunu Roy placed the country “right at the bottom.”

Other experts said the situation in India mirrors that in other countries, from developed countries in Western Europe to developing countries in Africa.

“There’s almost no country in Asia where what’s on the books determines what happens on the ground,” said Tom Kerr, of the Bangkok-based Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. “The countries with the best laws might still have the worst things happening.”

Scott Leckie, who founded the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions in 1991, said many countries on all continents have structures and procedures in place to combat discrimination. “Where we have the problem is in the implementation,” he said.

At her Siddharth Enclave home in South Delhi, Arthur says she still cannot leave the city.

“There is no question about leaving Delhi even though it doesn’t feel like home even after so long,” she said while playing with her 18-month-old niece. “It is a shame but we cannot run away from it.”