Struggles for Decommodifying Housing: Protected Tenants and Rent Control in Mumbai, 1918-2018

Struggles for Decommodifying Housing: Protected Tenants and Rent Control in Mumbai, 1918-2018
This study is an examination of the role played by collective struggles of Mumbai’s protected tenants, those who come under the purview of rent control protections, in defending housing as a social right and decoupling it from the idea of housing as a commodity. For this, it delves into a century long history of rent control politics in Mumbai city and constructs a chronological account of tenants’ struggles that appear between 1918 and 2018. Further, it uses the critical lens of decommodification, which refers to the process of limiting the role of markets in the housing system, to examine the demands and the arguments deployed by tenants’ struggles in legitimizing their demands. The reconstruction of the history of the tenants’ struggles is based on perusal of archival material pertaining to colonial period, proceedings of legislative bodies of Bombay/Maharashtra state, judgments pronounced by higher and lower courts and open-ended interviews with tenants and observations drawn from protests and meetings by tenants. To analyze the relation of tenants’ struggles to the principle of decommodification of housing, I have used the concept of frame as established in social movement scholarship which reflects strategizing on part of movement activists and adherents in defining reality for the purpose of appealing to other activists and the general public.

This study attests to the contentiousness of Mumbai’s tenants’ struggles and the political pressure that they built at various points of time in the history of rent control conflict. At certain junctures, one can also discern the effectiveness of tenants’ struggles in preventing the dilution or repeal of the rent control protections. In contrast to the ahistorical commentaries on rent control politics in Mumbai in which the long-term duration of rent control provisions is simplistically seen as an outcome of vote-bank politics, this study finds that for tenants to have a bearing on decisions regarding regulation of tenant-landlord relations, their numerical preponderance over landlords was hardly a significant resource by itself. It is through organization, alliance-building, mobilization and demonstration that the numerical strength of a socially diverse tenant base was translated into an organized force and came to acquire political influence. This study also shows that the protected tenant base, which has historically been a multiclass and multiethnic housing segment, has generated cross-class urban mobilizations for the defense of rent control, though such alliances were transient as the various sections of tenants were mobilized separately and by different organizations.

While the protected tenant struggles have played a crucial role in defending rent control protections which have served to decommodify a segment of the housing sector in the city, this study also finds an ambivalence in the tenants’ struggles when it comes to challenging the commodified notions of housing. Based on a thematic reading of the justifications offered in course of tenants’ struggles and by tenant activists, I could identify four frames by which protected tenants of Mumbai have legitimized their demands – “need over profiteering,” “personhood over alienability,” “contribution over profiteering” and “equity in property.” While these different frames have coexisted at any given point of time, the discourse over rent control can be seen to have gradually shifted from welfarist notions of rent control towards an argument based on equity and consumer rights in the last two decades, thereby indicating that the tenants’ struggles in the post-liberal period have become more distant from the principle of decommodification than the earlier history of rent control politics.

The chapterization of the thesis is as follows. Chapter 1 sets up the problematic of the study, spells out the research statement and questions and specifies the spatial context for the study, the research methods and process of fieldwork. In order to define housing struggles and to explore their social significance, this study is informed by a critical perspective on housing which is presented in Chapter 2. This perspective locates the systemic roots of housing insecurity in the extreme ways in which housing comes to be treated as a commodity and thereby emphasizes the need for decommodifying housing. Chapter 3 presents a historical overview of the legal framework which led to formation of a protected tenant base and defined their housing entitlements. Based on changes in the protective stance of the rent control laws, three phases of rent control history have been identified - “emergency” (1918-1947), “protectionist” (1947-1973) and “liberal” (1973- present). Chapters 4, 5 and 6 present a chronological account of protected tenants’ struggles from 1918 to 2018. Chapter 7 is the concluding chapter which revisits the research questions in light of the historical analyses presented in the previous chapters. It also discusses the significance of this study for the emerging literature on housing insecurity among middle class sections and on the nature of cross-class alliances that appear over matters of urban livability and collective consumption.


Paankhi Agrawal

Defended in

1 Jan 2022 – 30 Nov 2022

PhD defended at

Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay


Social Sciences




Urban / Rural