Do we need a Non-Discriminatory Housing Law in India?
Recent reports about some families and individuals of certain communities being denied housing accommodation in Indian cities point to an endemic issue of urban bias. The upsurge of these incidents has forced people to question the capability of our legal system to effectively tackle such discrimination. The very spirit of secularism demands certain level of responsibility both from the government and the people to respect and accommodate each other’s identity, beliefs and practice.
The part III, Article 15 of Fundamental Rights of our constitution states that:
No Citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to -
i) Access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment;
ii) The use of wells, tanks, bathing Ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.
iii) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children.
iv) Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
Does our constitution provide enough protection to its people from being unfairly denied accommodation just because they belong to a particular caste or religion?
Is there a need of stringent a housing law to protect the rights of people?
Having good accommodation is so basic to our human rights that it has compelled people to raise such questions.
To analyze the situation more clearly we should look at the current position of law regarding this matter as stated by Supreme Court in Zoroastrian Housing Corporation Vs. District Registrar Corp. Society where the court upheld a byelaw of the Zoroastrian Cooperative Society which limited the membership of society to Parsis. The court held that the members of the society had the right to associate with whoever it chooses and its bye laws that limited its membership on the grounds of religion was not opposed to public policy. It is argued by some that the notion of public policy was misapplied, reading it as a policy framed by the parent statute and not as a wider public policy. If we look at the American case we realize that the situation is different. In Shelly vs. Kraemer the Supreme Court refused to enforce contract that prohibited property from being occupied by non-Caucasians. Today the US Housing Act makes it illegal to refuse to sell, rent to or negotiate with any person because their inclusion in a protected class.
Measures that can be taken
The American experience serves as a cautionary tale. Specific judicial interventions help but the need of the hour is a legislative intervention, which can resolve the problem of housing discrimination on a whole. The Centre needs to frame a policy on non-discriminatory access to housing and the states should adopt and abide by it. Judicial intervention wherever necessary can be imposed to bring discipline of the legal order.
At the same time, people should imbibe societal values of togetherness & cooperation and respect all ethnicities.