Every year in the second week of July, the area surrounding Delhi University’s North Campus colleges erupts with activity as ‘freshers’ (first-year students) go on the hunt for paying guest (PG) accommodation.

At the corner of every campus street, people hand out flyers for PG accommodations — promising a host of facilities to suit every budget — and everybody from the e-rickshaw drivers to student-run helpdesks have a recommendation.

This year, however, uncertainty over reopening of universities on account of COVID-19 has pushed paying guest and hostel owners to the “brink of collapse” as there are no freshers coming in and most of the older students have moved out.

Rajesh Gupta, who has been running a PG accommodation in Vijay Nagar since 2017, said he had to give up one of the three floors he had taken up on rent to use as students’ residence. “The floor had been lying empty for nearly three months as there were no tenants coming in. The only reason we are still running is because we have about 8-10 students still living here,” Mr. Gupta said, adding that the cost of running common areas, electricity and maintenance had made it a loss-making endeavour.

“Usually, when the students go back home around this time, there is one month where we incur losses as we are getting no rent but have to pay for maintenance work such as painting. This year, however, most students left for home in March and have not returned since. Many of them were not in a position to pay rent either,” he added.

Love Jain, who runs a PG in Kamala Nagar — near DU colleges such as Hansraj, Kirori Mal, and Ramjas, said that the industry had practically collapsed. “Most of the people running PG’s here have taken property on rent from building owners. So, even if tenants are not coming, they have to pay rent to their landlord,” he said.

In a bind

PG owners find themselves in a tough spot, having to either pay rent for property with no tenants or forgo investments they have made on the building by giving up the lease.

The situation has been made worse with recent orders of the government and the High Court. “On the one hand, commercial properties have been ordered to continue paying rent, and on the other, we have been told to waive rent for students. What are we supposed to do?” wondered Mr. Jain.

Ruchika Bansal, who has been running Bansalville PG since 1995, said this is the first time her venture has faced such a problem.

Life interrupted

“When students left for home in March just before the lockdown started, nobody expected it to last this long. The students left most of their belongings here. Now, they are stuck back home and all their books and clothes are locked here,” Ms. Bansal said.

“While some students living near Delhi were able to come and clear out their rooms, I have been helping others who stay far away by sending back their belongings via courier. Several students living in the Northeast and Odisha have mailed me their keys. We start a video call, and their belongings are packed up right in front of them and mailed back,” Ms. Bansal added.

Uncertain about the future, Ms. Bansal said that many people were fearful of returning to Delhi given the high number of infections in the Capital. “Parents do not want to send their children to Delhi,” she added.

During the lockdown, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had appealed to landlords to not take money from tenants. Several people who run PG facilities said that many people used this as an excuse to not pay any rent.

“On humanitarian grounds, if someone was not in a position to pay, I would have not charged money… but if someone continues to stay or has left for home without emptying the room… it is very difficult to sustain myself,” said Sudha V., who runs a PG for working women.

She added that Mr. Kejriwal’s appeal led to an uncomfortable situation with two of her tenants as they were “living lavishly but not paying rent”.

Many PG owners have demanded that the government provide them relief.

What students say

The students who left their belongings behind claimed that PG owners and landlords were “less than charitable in relaxing rent” despite government orders, and often used “emotional pressure” to extract rent.

Mansi, a second-year BA English student who was residing at a PG in Janakpuri, said her landlord insisted on collecting rent for all the months during lockdown, arguing that students who came to Delhi to study came from privileged backgrounds. Mansi’s father is a labourer in Saharanpur and has been unable to find work since the beginning of the lockdown. Unable to continue paying her landlord, she drove to Delhi to collect her belongings last week.

Rishima Saha, a BA Sociology student at Lady Sri Ram College who stayed in a flat with three others, said she is in a tough spot as the landlord has refused to return the security deposit. “When we told the landlord about the government order on relaxing student rent, she threatened to call the police,” she said.

Eventually, they had to courier their keys to friends or relatives in Delhi so that their belongings could be shifted.

Arundati K., who is from Kerala and a BA German student, said she and her flatmates have been paying rent as well as water charges for their 2 BHK apartment despite not having returned for the last three months. “We tried negotiating with the landlords but they are not budging. They emotionally manipulate us by saying they have bank loans and education fees to pay. They even told us to return to Delhi as places are reopening.”

After the High Court recently rejected a petition filed by the Students-tenants Union, calling for extension of rent relaxation for students, the number of evictions have gone up, claimed a member of the union.

“Without government directions to landlords, tenants have no security and are facing a crisis,” the member added.

Property dealer Rajveer Bhasin, who has spent over 10 summers sweating it out with parents and their children to find suitable accommodation near North Campus, said that almost all flats and PGs are empty.

“Colleges are shut, coaching centres are shut and nobody knows when they will reopen. I have a huge inventory and owners are willing to cut down on rent so that they get some form of income,” said Mr. Bhasin.



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