Amir Rizvi, 40, lets his wife stay in the forefront during negotiations and interviews with potential landlords while renting an apartment. The reason: Her identity might help them seal the deal and end the painful process of finding a flat to live in. Rizvi is a Muslim married to a Hindu, Shalini Bhawan.
“Some landlords have told me on my face that a Muslim is not welcome in their housing societies. This leaves Muslims with no option but to look for flats in Muslim localities. I am sure the same thing happens to non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated societies,” said Rizvi, a communications designer and scriptwriter who lives in Lokhandwala.
“It is difficult for Muslims to find a flat to rent or buy. Many societies make unreasonable excuses and cause innumerable delays in giving the No-Objection Certificate. This discrimination makes one feel really bitter,” said Abdul Sayed, a broker who handles areas from Juhu to Goregaon.
Mumbai’s housing societies are increasingly becoming like gated communities that are unwelcome, even hostile, to people from outside that preferred community.
In a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, however, there are many who don’t belong or choose to be part of a particular community, and these people often become victims of polarisation.
Housing societies tend to be just as intolerant towards unmarried people and pet owners.
When Sulochana Balakrishnan, 53, decided to keep a cat 10 years ago, there was hue and cry in the society she lives in at Dombivli. “At the general body meeting, the society immediately passed a resolution that pets should be confined to the house of the person who owns them, should not inconvenience other members or spread filth in the society premises,” said Balakrishnan.
While it is reasonable for a society to demand that its premises not be dirtied and other members not be troubled, Balakrishnan said the resolution forced her to keep her cat’s movements restricted to the house, which she felt was not fair for the animal. “Though we did not want to do that, we had no choice.”
Non-vegetarians, too, get a raw deal as many societies have an unwritten rule to sell or rent flats only to vegetarians. “There is an unwritten understanding between us in the managing committee that we will not sell or rent our flats to non-vegetarians. We don’t want the smell and the negativity that cooking and eating of meat bring,” said Paras Jain, chairman of a housing society in Dombivli. “It is our prerogative to decide who we want to sell or rent our flats to. We believe in vegetarianism and non-violence, so we endorse it.”
While the Maharashtra Cooperative Societies (MCS) Act, 1960, calls for open membership to housing societies, it also gives powers to a society to make amendments to the bye-laws adopted by the Registrar of Cooperative Societies. “But this does not mean that housing societies can pass resolutions that reinforce discrimination of any kind,” said Soma Singh, a high court lawyer. Any modification of a bye-law - made in the form of a resolution passed at a society’s general body meeting - has to be sent to the Registrar of Cooperative Societies for approval. “No law that is in contravention to the MCS Act or the Indian Constitution can be upheld,” said Singh.
“Often, societies exercise arbitrary powers by asking for a person’s bio-data and examining his or her background before giving membership. Religion, career, caste, personal habits all become grounds to refuse membership. But once the required transfer formalities are met, a society can’t refuse membership,” said JB Patel, a housing society activist.
Though the Supreme Court in a landmark 2005 judgment (in the Zoroastrian Cooperative Housing Society Limited vs District Registrar of Cooperative Societies case) upheld a society’s right to its bye-laws, which confined membership to Parsis, it does not hold for all housing societies, said Singh. “As the land belonged to a Parsi charitable trust for the purpose of providing accommodation to the Parsi community, the court made an exception. But in Mumbai, the Registrar of Cooperative Societies has directed that buildings constructed for the general public cannot make such bye-laws,” she explained.
The problem, said SS Mahajan, CEO of Mumbai District Housing Cooperative Federation Ltd., an advisory body for housing societies, is that since discrimination on the grounds of religion, eating habits, pets and marital status are verbal in most cases, no evidence can be produced, and the Registrar of Cooperative Societies cannot take cognisance.
“Section 22 of the MCS Act offers a remedy: If a society does not give a valid, written reason for refusing membership in three months, the person becomes a deemed member of the society,” said Mahajan.