In August this year, Rakhi Naik, a domestic worker in Mumbai, was found pleading with the police at Khar police station by Aftab Siddique, a teacher and social activist in the city. Rakhi was on one of the many tours she made to police stations asking for help after filing an FIR in April. Thanks to Rakhi, Aftab was able to unravel a complicated pattern of fraud in the city. Men pretending to be brokers and agents trick lower class people with thousands of money and make it harder for them to find affordable housing.
It all started when Rakhi signed a deal on July 16, 2019 with a certain Diwakar Sahadev Rane, to whom she was introduced by Sachin Jadhav who witnessed the deal. “When I came from Nalasopara to Bandra (six years ago) I stayed at a place behind Ram Mandir. After three years, my agreement ended, and during my search for another house, I found Sachin,” says Rakhi. Citing problems with the owner of the house behind Ram Mandir, in a desperate state she met Sachin who claimed that Diwakar was her boss.
Rakhi deposited an amount of Rs 5,50,000/- which he was told would be compensated after three years. In the meantime, Sachin and Diwakar would pay the monthly rent of Rs 15,000/- for an apartment they would provide, in a building of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA). The plan worked for two years and Rakhi and her two sons had a house, so she saw no reason to question it. But during the lockdown, payments suddenly stopped and Rakhi was threatened with eviction. She never got her money back either.
Affordable housing an impossible dream
Rakhi is from Mumbai and before moving to Bandra lived in Nalasopara where their house was in a terrible state with no basic amenities. Rakhi traveled to Bandra, Khar every day for work, leaving home at 5am and reaching late at night. Her eldest son was studying hard so he could get a degree in hotel management in Pune. Her husband, she says, was absent for six years due to a period of alcoholism which left him with serious physical injuries. He is now back but physically handicapped. “My husband bothered us a lot. I didn’t want my sons to follow his path, so I fought for us to leave so they could study,” she says. At one time, her eldest son was traveling from Mumbai to Pune every day to take his exams.
Read more: Why ‘affordable housing’ is just a myth in Mumbai today
Aftab met Rakhi by accident. She was at the police station that day on another case. “She (Rakhi) was crying in front of all the officers, saying that she had been running from pillar to post since April and had not been heard from. One of the officers told her to go ask me for help .I told them, am I supposed to do your job?But I went through his papers and was shocked to see what happened.Till that date there was no help from the police,” says Aftab. She pushed Rakhi to start talking about his plight with others, while Aftab also took to social media to share this case, and through these efforts, Aftab was able to collect 28 such cases in the city, all women, different cheaters.
Sangeetha, a domestic worker, suffered the same ordeal. She met Sachin Jadhav through Rakhi. “He (Sachin) did not tell us that the deal would be done on his behalf,” says Sangeetha. In all cases, the pattern is the same – the promise of accommodation in turbulent conditions for the applicant, the demand for a high deposit with vague verbal explanations and, ultimately, fraud, leading to futile attempts at justice. . Another woman known to Rakhi was caught in the same situation. Shainali Shekhar paid Sachin a sum of Rs one lakh after Rakhi introduced her to Sachin. Rakhi says Shainali is not talking to her anymore.
Aftab expresses his anger towards the police for the handling of this matter. She was forced to file a civil complaint, while Aftab says the case is only criminal in nature. A civil case takes longer than a criminal case and requires lawyers, time and labor which Rakhi cannot afford. “The criminals run unhindered. These women are at the mercy of the system that doesn’t care,” says Aftab.
A senior inspector from Khar police station, who did not wish to be named, confirmed the ongoing investigation saying Diwakar was arrested when the FIR was filed, but was released on bail. “At the moment, the statements of three women are being recorded,” he said.
A complicated legal battle
Lawyer Vinod Sampath believes that, legally, it is more complicated. “Once an FIR is filed, a charge sheet must be filed. Inevitably, the police delay the filing of the indictment, because right after that there is a lot of racing. It has also happened that after filing an FIR, people lose interest in the case. So the police, to avoid extra work, do not want to file an indictment. Now here Rakhi cannot do more than she does. If the police do not handle the case properly, they can go to the chief inspector, which they have already done. Beyond that, what remains is the civil case in the courts, which can go on forever. The money won’t come back anyway, at most a penalty will come,” he says.
He adds that in order for her to go further in this matter, she can state that the money – Rs 5 lakh for the deposit – was paid for earning a living. This in itself makes her accountable to consumer court, where she can file a claim for poor service and unfair business practices. There, if the money is not refunded, the case can be dealt with under criminal law.
However, attorney Sampath also pointed out that Rakhi could also be found guilty, as she agreed to the arrangement in the first place.
Aftab in response explains how this is unique for marginalized communities. With no system support, decisions are made out of desperation, faith, and lack of basic amenities in their price range. “These are people who are always on their toes, all day. Wherever they find work, they take it. Every time they get help, they grab it. It’s not just one woman either, there are so many others, including many single mothers who can’t read English. If they are promised a home, why would they oppose it?
In Mumbai, where real estate is scarce, valuable and overpriced, affordable housing is inaccessible to most of its citizens. Dozens of people – from all socio-economic classes – come to town to earn a living and are desperate to find a roof over their heads in no time. Despite laws requiring registered agreements, digitized processes, etc., more often than not it is brokers and agents who act as mediators and facilitators for citizens who cannot use the system officially. Lack of experience, knowledge and desperation make them highly dependent on these agents, who claim to operate the system for a fee.
None of this is documented in the legal agreements. (Agreements with owners are, but money traded with brokers is rarely officially recorded). Tenants have no choice but to trust the agents. These arrangements work – brokers and landlords receive money and tenants get housing without having to go through cumbersome systems. However, in the event of fraud or deception, tenants have nowhere to go and no system to rely on. As housing authority officials and the police look into the matter, the affected tenant has to find alternative accommodation in an almost similar way, once again, making it a never-ending cycle.
What is the future of affordable housing in Mumbai?
In 2018, the central government announced the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) initiative to provide affordable housing for the urban poor by 2022, now extended to 2024. But with the real estate market favoring luxury buildings over lower-class housing, the government’s promise seems unattainable. In Mumbai itself, many say affordable housing is easier to achieve than people think.
In the meantime, the government of Maharashtra has apparently seen some development with regard to its goal of affordable housing. In 2019 there was talk of combining many agencies – Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) and some departments of the Department of Urban Development – to accelerate affordable housing.
MHADA was established in 1948 to build residential properties for people of different demographics. According to the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana plan for 2022, Maharashtra was to build five lakh affordable houses in the state by this year. Not much is known about the update except that on September 16, the newly appointed Shinde-Fadnavis government restored the powers of MHADA by issuing a Government Resolution (GR) which will now allow the Authority to make decisions on its own without government interference.
It remains to be seen how this will play out since, on the ground, citizens like Rakhi, who take on the financial burdens of the family without formal education, will continue to depend on the Sachins and Diwakars of the system.