Anxieties concerning housing among early migrants in Pune

Housing remains a central issue for migrants in urban India, particularly female migrants. In this historical study of internal labour migration between the late 1960s to early 1980s, the lack of proper housing facilities in Pune city emerges as a major cause of anxiety for a section of migrants from Kerala. A closer examination of their oral narratives reveals gendered constraints in their access to rental housing in an emerging urban space.
By  |  February 17, 2021


Housing remains a central issue for migrants in urban India, particularly female migrants. In my historical study of internal labour migration between the late 1960s to early 1980s, the lack of proper housing facilities in Pune emerges as a major cause of anxiety for a section of migrants from Kerala. These were educated inter-state migrants, mainly Malayali working women from landowning Nair and Christian communities, who came to comprise the old middle classes in India. A closer examination of their oral narratives reveals gendered constraints in their access to rental housing in an emerging urban space.

Pune has experienced tremendous change and growth from its status as a market town in the seventeenth century. The expansion of military establishments, such as munitions factories and ordnance depot at Khadki during the World Wars, and the setting up of cantonments made Pune an important military centre for the British colonial administration. By the late colonial period, Pune emerged as a central place of industrialization and urbanisation with railways and roads and industry workers. Following Independence, the diversion of development from Mumbai in the 1960s encouraged rapid industrialization of Pune, attracting labour from within Maharashtra and its neighbouring states (Diddee, 1984). Soon, industrial growth and urbanisation along with the spread of suburbs were followed by an influx of migrants to Pune, which also began facing an acute shortage of housing facilities and other civic amenities.

Lack of living spaces

The lack of residential areas and poor housing facilities showed that Pune was expanding at a pace that was unplanned. In 1972, the Poona Municipal Corporation (PMC) acknowledged that “due to increase in the population and industries in Poona the question of housing has become very acute”. PMC made these observations in the context of extending home-building loans to all its employees; a proposal which was later accepted by the Maharashtra government.

Malayalis settled in Pune reminisce that it was only after the mid-1980s with the arrival of corporate capital that many multi-storey buildings with several apartments or flats began emerging in Pune. Before this, migrants from Kerala and other regions rented accommodations in wadas – a traditional form of housing that became popular during the Peshwa rule, and boarding facilities in the crowded peth areas of central Pune as well as in scattered bungalows and chawls across its expanding urban space. Certain areas such as Rasta Peth with the Ayyappa temple had special enclaves of immigrants from Kerala and Tamil Nadu regions. Government quarters for employees in union offices and hostels of educational institutions were the other living spaces available to migrants from the middle classes.

Government quarters and informal residency

At this point, the government-run Ammunition Factory at Khadki made its mark on the migrants from Kerala in more ways than one. Apart from its significant capacity for employment, the factory had quarters for its employees that also became living spaces for migrants. In their narratives, older migrants reveal the precarious nature of living arrangements they came to face as ‘illegal’ subtenants in these quarters.

Malayali migrants recall that in the 1960s the Ammunition Factory at Khadki extended its government quarters at Range Hills. The quarters meant for the factory workers and employees were among the few residential buildings in the Aundh-Khadki region, where many migrant women and men from Kerala also found jobs. Due to lack of housing facilities, migrants most often stayed as ‘illegal’ subtenants in these quarters that were sublet by tenants, who were employees of the factory, for some additional income. Insufficient quarters for employees also resulted in migrants employed at the factory struggling to find accommodation. Hence, some of the migrant factory workers also became illegal subtenants.

As it was against the rule to sublet government quarters, authorities made frequent and unexpected checks at the quarters. During these checks, it was not difficult for the authorities to realize that a migrant family was living there as cultural markers, such as clothing or other belongings, gave them away. To avoid trouble for the tenant who would have to give up the quarters if found out and also to prevent eviction, subtenants hid their belongings and their presence altogether.

One migrant narrated a harrowing experience with her living arrangement during this period. She and her spouse were employees of the Defence Accounts Department in Pune. Due to a shortage of quarters, they had to rent a room as subtenants. However, the couple suspected that a colleague, whom the husband had an altercation with, kept tipping off the authorities on their ‘illegal’ staying arrangement as subtenants. The family including their infant daughter were forced to shift homes on multiple occasions following evictions. Sometimes this was in the middle of the month when finding rented accommodation was difficult. Often, they had to request their tenant-renter for more time. A few female migrants belonging to higher castes and communities considered it “unimaginable” to live in a chawl with people of lower castes. Caste-based segregation and discrimination further limited housing options for the migrants.

Due to the gendered division of domestic labour and other allied activities, women shouldered the bulk of responsibilities at home. The hard realities of those days, including scarcity of consumer goods, meant that every chore from fetching water for cleaning, washing, and taking baths was done by women in addition to preparing food and taking care of the children. As working women, they were already constrained by the double burden at home and workplace; uncertainty in living arrangements due to their status as migrants placed them under severe strain and anxiety.

In most cases, the tenant subletting the quarters was a bachelor. While it was difficult to find proper accommodation, unmarried migrant women were also anxious about staying in quarters sublet by bachelors. One female migrant observed that her brother’s friend had offered to give them a room and the kitchen in his quarters that also had a veranda for visitors. Since the friend was a bachelor, she compelled her brother to look for another place. She noted:

He was not married. If he stays in one room and comes back from the factory and at a time when my elder brother is not around, then? I said [to my brother], ‘let’s not take that place. We will also have to hear what other people are saying. Even one room somewhere else is also fine’.

In addition to safety, her fear was also about reputation in a closely knit-immigrant community. A single woman’s reputation was tied to her future chances of finding a suitable groom through an arranged marriage when information about a prospective bride would be enquired about within the immigrant community. Hence, concerns about societal stigma associated with unmarried status and possible risk to safety also limited female migrants’ access to housing.


Migrant historical narratives about residence in middle-class areas and localities in an emerging urban space resonate with stories of urbanisation in other Indian cities where inward migration and urban expansion have outpaced the growth of civic amenities including living spaces. Clearly, these were the experiences of relatively privileged sections who were gainfully employed in union offices as opposed to those in low-income and poor settlements, such as slums. However, the specific nature of living spaces for even these migrants shows severe limitations in the availability of rental housing during this period. Moreover, the challenges of lack of proper housing become more complex when intersectional identities of gender and caste are taken into account. The precarious nature of living arrangements, including anxieties related to eviction, safety, and reputation, adversely affected the female migrants whose marital status, caste and communal locations and related discriminatory practices, and nature of migration with relations restricted their mobility and limited their access to housing.

Beyond the specificities, this historical study reflects the realities of migrants in contemporary times as well. Despite radical transformations in urban amenities and services in the Indian cities, exclusionary processes based on gender, caste and religion continue to affect migrants’ access to housing and their right to the city.

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Sonia Krishna Kurup

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