Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Opinion | A home away from prejudice

Risk mitigation is the way to fight discrimination. Amarendra Sahu, co-founder and CEO of NestAway Technologies Pvt. Ltd, says this casually. This is not clickbait—his company functions on the premise that the prejudice of Indian home owners is a reflection of poor social infrastructure and that once you create trust between landlord and tenant, it is relatively easy to dismiss the proxies that people apply to “protect" their homes.

He should know. For three years now, NestAway has been battling the innumerable prejudices of home owners against Muslims, singles, call centre employees (and people who work in a host of other red flag professions) with an effective mix of logic, counselling, empathy, blacklisting and legal recourse. The website doesn’t list building societies that ban meat-eating tenants.

To summarize their approach (in Sahu’s words): “Hey you’ll do just fine, don’t worry too much. And don’t bring the monsters in your head to the table." NestAway has managed to get 25,000 home owners and 50,000 tenants across Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and the National Capital Region (NCR) on board with this formula. Next year, the company aims to at least double these numbers, Sahu says. It’s a revolutionary social experiment at a time when New India is battling Old India more furiously than ever before.

NestAway was founded by four friends who met at engineering college in Surathkal, Karnataka and who faced housing prejudice shortly after they graduated. When Sahu, the son of a paddy farmer from Naranpur, Odisha, came to Bengaluru in search of a job in 2004, finding a place to stay proved difficult. “The worst part about all these social issues is that they get so deeply entrenched that we just accept them as a fact of life. It becomes a question of entitlement, not availability. We begin to believe we are not entitled to it," he says with the air of someone who has thought about this issue long and hard.

Ten years later, when the college friends got together to try their hand at a rental start-up, they found that nothing had changed. That’s when they decided to help bachelors entering the workforce to fight the prejudice of house-owners. That idea developed into a broader, “no-discrimination" policy included in every NestAway agreement: “The owner agrees that he/she will not discriminate against any prospective licensee…on the basis of caste, creed, colour, religion or food preferences." Their ad campaign last year, published on the day Donald Trump was sworn in as US president, said: “It’s time to Trump biases, partisanship, parochialism, racism, inequalities, homophobia, intolerance, chauvinism, bigotry, sexism. Because a (white) house should never discriminate."

Sahu, 35, is a repository of landlord and tenant stories. He prefers to focus on the positive yarns—like the one about the landlord who waived a couple of months of rent when his tenant got laid off, or the tenant who took his landlord to the hospital in the middle of the night—but occasionally NestAway becomes part of another type of story.

Like when a landlord listed on NestAway recently denied Bengaluru-based media professional Arshi Yasin a home because of her religion. Yasin, who signed up with NestAway a year ago, needed to move to a bigger home after her father died and her mother moved to Bengaluru from Kishanganj, Bihar, to stay with her. Few days after she paid the deposit on a house she liked, Yasin says, the NestAway area manager called and inquired about her religion. “How does it matter? NestAway doesn’t ask for religion," she replied. Then, she says, the company found her another apartment in the same building. After three or four days, the situation repeated itself. This time NestAway and Yasin had separate conversations with the couple that owned the home. They agreed to lease her their home; NestAway delisted the first landlord. “We have always stood ground and we will always stand our ground in a situation like this," Sahu says, adding that he can’t monitor every conversation his field representatives have. “There has never been a case where we have compromised on our no discrimination policy."

NestAway offers owners three concrete promises: guaranteed and timely rent; insurance if their property is damaged; and a rental agreement governed by speedy arbitration. “We are not preachers, we think creating trustworthy systems and market-linked mechanisms is a better way to fight prejudice," says Sahu.

The company employs old-fashioned counselling for cultural battles. “There have been cases when an RWA (residents welfare association) has been offensive to single women coming late at night and according to them they are not attired properly. We go and counsel them," says Sahu. “Before, it used to be the mob against one. Now they know the tenant has representation. We can take them to court."

NestAway has approached the courts on more than one occasion. Right now the company is fighting the RWA of Ashiana Upvan in Ghaziabad after it imposed a penalty of 1,000 per day on apartments that are shared by singles under NestAway’s co-living scheme.

The increase in migration to the big cities has added to people’s xenophobia, Sahu says, adding that we need a government-run migrating workforce support scheme.

In Mumbai, the biases mostly centre around a tenant’s career and financial background. In the north, discomfort stems from linguistic barriers. South Indians prefer tenants with traditional jobs and the north and south are no different in their religious biases. “It’s a constant undercurrent," he says.

Mohsin Alam Bhat, an assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, and 25 other researchers have been studying the nitty-gritty of housing discrimination against Muslims for slightly over a year now. “It’s extremely pervasive in Delhi and Mumbai," he says. “It’s rare to find areas where rental discrimination of Muslims does not exist. It’s practically impossible to find a ‘mixed’ middle class or upper middle class locality in Delhi."

Bhat says even in mixed localities, the nature of housing discrimination is such that Muslims just don’t have access to the same resources. They can access a much smaller pool of apartments if they have the right social capital and contacts, he says.

Yet, as Sahu and his partners tackle what they know is a big social challenge whose success depends entirely on a large group of people doing the right thing, they remain optimistic. “Five years from now you’ll see a very different India. We are betting our careers on that."

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani

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