A few weeks ago, two students from Rajasthan had to give up on their dreams of attending Delhi University (DU) because they couldn’t afford the tuition and hostel fees – Rs 16,000 and Rs 1,20,000 each. Their jilted guardians, mazdoors by profession, came to Delhi because they believed the myth of universal accessibility. However, reality hit them hard and fast, exposing the upper-caste, upper-class and moneyed demographic’s monopoly on education in India.
Aspiring college students have very few scholarship options when it comes to tuition, and absolutely none when it comes to accommodation. The tuition scholarships that do exist rarely match the actual costs of attending college.
While individual incidents of benevolent principals and/or teachers funding students offer hope in such darkness, these one-off incidents don’t address the structural inequalities plaguing our system. Meanwhile, accommodation costs, at both college hostels and private facilities, keep climbing higher, effectively making it impossible for a considerable section of students from the margins to continue higher studies.
The myth of affordable housing
The increasing disparity between the number of hostels and the number of students that seek admission in DU each year is proof of the institution’s sorry state of affairs. Only 14 out of the 64 colleges in DU have hostel facilities. There are 6,040 hostel spots for about 1.8 lakh students. According to DU’s website, 50% of all applicants are outstation students, which means that there is only one seat for 15 students.
Another student, who recently graduated from Ramjas College and wished to remain anonymous, said, “there are insufficient seats in the college hostel, and there exists no fee waiver for people from the margins, like me.” Born to farmer parents, he was the first one to leave Pahadpura village, in Rajasthan’s Jalore district to pursue college. With a meagre family income of about Rs 11,000 per month, his parents found it difficult to fund his education, especially when he was unable to get hostel accommodation his first year.
He added, “When there are only three hostel seats for a class of more than 80 students, inevitably, people like me face the brunt.” Staying in a private accommodation cost him about Rs 6000 a month – Rs 3000 for rent and the rest for food.
His family took out several loans and, as a last resort, even had their youngest son take a job running errands so he could earn an extra Rs 3000 a month. Unfortunately, his financial burden didn’t really lighten even after getting hostel accommodation, because yearly hostel fees still came to about Rs 70,000. For DU students, finding a place isn’t just a function of availability, but also affordability.
The steep hike in hostel fees is a recent phenomenon. Colleges are hiking up prices in a move to ‘self-finance’ hostels’ mess and security. Most colleges have said that they’ve had to raise fees because of insufficient University Grants Commission funds for maintenance.
DS Kothari Hostel, one of the largest spaces for DU students, doubled its monthly fees from Rs 1200 a month to Rs 2400 in just one academic year. Miranda House, too, doubled its fees from Rs 1600 to Rs 33,000 a year to finance new hostel amenities like furniture and curtains. Daulat Ram College, which is said to have one of the most luxurious college hostels also almost doubled its fee to Rs 66,000 a year in 2010-11.
Hostel rates for women are even higher. The Hindu College Women’s Hostel is a case in point. Last year, the college re-opened its women’s hostel after about five years, but raised the fees to Rs 90,000 a year – about twice what their male counterparts were paying.
In the name of ‘state-of-the-art-facilities’ and ‘security’, women’s hostels in DU charge their residents about Rs 2500-3000 more per month than men’s hostels. Women’s hostels at SGTB Khalsa College, Indraprastha College for Women, Daulat Ram College etc. have hostel fees of over Rs 1 lakh a year.
Private players have found their niche
As private players have rushed to close the gap between the number of students and the number of hostels, the glut of private paying guest (PG) and apartments on rent has solidified the economic barriers that separate students.
For instance, the average cost of staying in Kamla Nagar – one of the most popular student neighbourhoods in Delhi – is about Rs 12,000 for room, board and food, but excluding electricity.
New luxury homes, like CoHo, come equipped with “premium facilities” like gyms, swimming pools, elevators, indoor stadiums, lounge areas, individual study compartments and so on. They offer students a “hassle-free” experience. Upper-middle class families happily shell out up to Rs 40,000 a month to provide their kids the right “ambience” to study.
These private accommodations have facilitated the emergence of a new class of the modern day sahukars – the aggregators. These individuals, usually DU students, charge other students a commission for finding them places to stay. However, they also break deals and end up leaving students stranded with no money or roof over their heads.
Recently the Indian Express published a story about five Ramjas students who started a company called YourShell and received a grant of Rs 35 lakh from the government’s Startup India Initiative. YourShell now runs about 18 student accommodations around DU.
As the state tacitly supports such unequal solutions to students’ housing problems, others, with limited means have to find other ways to negotiate the cost of attending college in Delhi.
They move farther away from the central areas and subject themselves to deplorable conditions for Rs 5,000 a month to fit their monthly budgets.
Medha Thakur, a graduate from Ramjas College, recalled her experience of staying in one of the alleys of Kamla Nagar, “We were crammed up in very small rooms with an unbearable stench from adjacent washrooms. I had to keep the exhaust fan on all the time just to breathe comfortably.”
She also recalled paying extra for security, and yet the night-warden herself received barely Rs 5000 per month. And paying for it didn’t guarantee safety. Drunk men would pass out in the foyers at night, resulting in the residents confining themselves in the name of safety.
Another graduate from Kirori Mal College recounted how he had settled for an asbestos-roofed room on the fifth floor of a dingy building, with just enough space for one single cot. “The room was a breeding ground for rats, the heat was killing in the summer and there wasn’t any space for a cooler. Water leakage from the ceiling would keep me up in the nights to change buckets regularly,” he said.
A room of one’s own
Under Section 33 of the DU Act, the university is bound to provide for every student’s accommodation, but the administration remains indifferent to its obligations. The Delhi Rent Control Act, 1995 seems to be the only hope for those who can’t afford any of the private accomodations on offer.
Meanwhile, the government’s decision to reward private players with more money to expand their elite accommodation services only indicates the system’s apathy towards its own students.
Fed up with the lack of options and the absence of any standardised renting system for the city, a group of students, DU alumni and teachers have started to protest their ‘Right to Accommodation’.
Until the state takes action, most students have no option but to hope for a room of their own.
Abinash Dash Choudhury is a writer and activist and Sweta Dash is a writer and aspiring academic.
Featured image credit: Coho and Quora