A significant proportion of the working poor in Asian cities live in slums as renters. An estimated 60–90 per cent of low-income rentals in Asia are in the informal sector; 25 per cent of India’s housing stock comprises informal rentals. Yet informal rentals remain an understudied area. Through an empirical study, this article illustrates the typologies of informal rental housing in urban villages and unauthorized colonies in Gurgaon, a city of 1.2 million located within India’s National Capital Region (NCR). Further, through qualitative fieldwork, the article sheds light on how renters, usually low-income migrants, leverage informal rentals to negotiate the city. The research finds that while informal rentals offer advantages of afford-ability, flexibility and proximity to livelihoods for migrants, they are also sites of exploitation and poor living conditions. Further, the study reveals that social networks that carry over from places or origin as well as household migration strategies strongly influence housing choices in the informal rentals market.
Numerous scholars including Davis (2006) have drawn out the links between neoliberal citymaking and informality and in turn the connections between informality and poverty. Many Asian cities—Shanghai, Mumbai and Jakarta to name a few—have undergone dramatic transformations as a result of Western as well as home-grown forms of neoliberal citymaking. Ghertner’s (2011) work on Delhi’s aspirations to be a world-class city points to the city’s desire to move away from the image of slums and squalor even as the number of people living in unplanned, poorly serviced parts of the city continues to grow. What’s more, a large number of the working poor, especially new entrants to the city live in slums and other informal settlements as renters. An estimated 60–90 per cent of low-income rentals in Asia are in the informal sector (UN-Habitat & UNESCAP, 2008) and 25 per cent of India’s housing stock comprises informal rentals (National Sample Survey Organisation, 2010).
Ananya Roy (2009) suggests that informality in India’s cities is not just caused by a failure of planning, but is indeed a ‘key feature’ of the idiom of urbanization in India. Further, she describes informality as a ‘state of deregulation’ in which the laws on the ownership and usage of land are ‘open-ended and subject to multiple interpretations and interests’. Roy also draws attention to the practice of ‘unmapping’ in the governance of Indian cities, where the state uses informality ‘as an instrument of both accumulation and authority’ by the wilful change of land use often in contravention to the state’s own laws.
In Gurgaon, a suburban city of 1.2 million people located in India’s National Capital Region (NCR), these forms of informalization are evident. Media has widely reported the failure of urban planning as evidenced by the poor infrastructure and inadequate quality of life offered to citizens (Yardley, 2011). Further, the city is planned through what Gururani (2013) refers to as ‘flexible planning’, which uses exemptions, compromises and brute force repetitively and iteratively to fulfil a vision that favours the elite. Gururani interprets Gurgaon as an ‘illegal settlement’ boldly secured through class power, political (and caste) allegiances and global capital. In spatial terms, this is manifested in a focus on real estate development through the appropriation of agricultural lands from farmers. This land has been utilized to create commercial and residential real estate targeted towards upper income buyers, while informal areas of the city like urban villages—areas of inhabitation that predate urbanization—and unauthorized colonies—created by the illegal plotting of agricultural land—have been left to absorb the residual industrial and residential activity. Indeed, the researcher observes that a tight control on land in the city frustrates any attempts of the urban poor to illegally occupy or squat on land. Erstwhile farmers, in the absence of agricultural income, have taken up landlordism as a de facto occupation. As a result, nearly all low-income housing in Gurgaon exists as a form of informal rentals.
In such a scenario, Gurgaon serves as a laboratory to understand more about how informal rental housing works. How do informal rentals serve as an entry point for migrants? What quality of life does informal rental housing offer to the urban poor and are there means for making improved housing choices within the rentals market? How does informal renting impact the access of the working urban poor to jobs, services and amenities? Is it an incubator for the urban poor as they negotiate a path of economic mobility?
This article presents a qualitative study of Gurgaon’s informal rentals market with a view to (i) study the diversity and characteristics of informal rental housing in Gurgaon and (ii) understand the mechanisms and motivations by which low-income migrant workers in the city occupy, utilize and move between the various informal rental housing typologies.
The first section of the article provides a literature review of informal rental housing in India, including some Asian examples, with a view to illustrate the dominant patterns. The second section comments on Gurgaon’s planning history and socio-economic context that created conditions for informal landlords to take on the role of making housing available to the urban poor, largely low-income migrants. The third section presents the typologies of rental housing found in Gurgaon and discusses tenure, location, rental management and housing quality across typologies. It also comments on practices of informal landlordism in the city. The fourth section examines how the migrant renter leverages the informal rental market to negotiate the city. It also presents some narratives that illustrate the mech nisms of housing and mobility across housing typologies.