“Homely atmosphere with good food and guaranteed safety,” reads the description of one of the many posts advertising women’s hostels on a popular Facebook group for people who have moved to Chennai and are looking for suitable accommodation. The post is accompanied by pictures of three single beds placed next to each other in a cramped room with seemingly little ventilation or light. Yet, the many enthusiastic responses show there is still demand for such places.
This is the reality of many such hostels and paying guest accommodation across the city. With very little oversight on their operations, those who run these accommodations more often than not disregard important regulations and safety protocols they should be complying with.
Unregistered and unlicensed
Following the rape of two minor girls in their hostel which utterly lacked security, the Tamil Nadu government took a proactive step to frame the Tamil Nadu Hostel for Women and Children (Regulation) Rules, 2015. Under the Rules, any hostel for women and children must be registered with the office of the District Collector within six months of starting operations. Once the application has been scrutinised by the collector, an inspection of the premises must be conducted and the licence issued only after such inspection. The licence must be renewed every year.
However, data from the Department of Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme shows that only 85 hostels have applied for registration since the rules came into effect in 2015. A conservative estimate from rental listings online places the number of women’s hostels in the city at over 600, most of which fall outside the purview of any regulation.
The owner of a chain of accommodations in T Nagar, Vadapalani and West Mambalam spoke on condition of anonymity: “I have not applied for a licence yet from the authorities. I plan to do so in the coming months to avoid any penalty. I heard that the process is long and authorities may expect bribes, so I did not register when I started off ten years ago.”
He is however quick and firm in pointing out that people stay in his hostel as he provides the best of facilities. “I will not do anything that will put them in danger, merely out of greed. My properties are well-maintained and very safe. We have around 70 women staying across the three locations and I visit every other day to make sure everything is in order; they do not have any complaints,” he says.
While complaints may or may not come forth, most hostels routinely flout many of the rules that they are expected to follow. For example, the rules state that a space of 120 sq ft must be allocated for each resident. Hostels in the city house as many as three to four residents in a room that measures approximately 350 sq ft. Some rooms also have bunk beds, accommodating close to six residents.
Hostels with over 50 residents must have CCTV cameras at the entrance and exit but many of them do not install cameras. Registers meant to record details of those who enter and exit the premises are not maintained properly. Some hostels also do not even have a watchman and entrust that duty to the warden on site.
The rules call for one warden for every 50 residents. Background checks must be conducted on the wardens prior to their employment. Hostels in the city usually have a single warden or two wardens who work on a shift basis. “We have had so many wardens since I moved here around a year ago. The owner just finds women looking for work from small towns and brings them here. I do not think any background checks are done on them. There were rumours that one of them was fired after found stealing from the residents,” says Meera R from Ernakulam, residing at a women’s hostel in T Nagar.
It is not as if such accommodation comes cheap. The monthly charges by the hostels are often exorbitant. Each resident pays a minimum of Rs 5000 for a spot in a room shared with two or three other persons. Non air-conditioned rooms cost marginally less. On an average, a single, air-conditioned room with food provided in the hostel can cost the resident at least Rs 12,000 a month.
“I used to live in one such hostel, but realised that renting a house along with my roommate would be far more affordable and would also give us some much needed space. So we moved out and now we have a whole house to ourselves for the same amount that the two of us were paying for a single room in the PG,” says Shrishti Dixit, who formerly stayed at a PG in Velachery.
Food is another issue of concern for hostel residents. While the provisions mandate that there must be a food safety inspection and FSSAI approval, no such checks take place given that most of these hostels are unregistered. The hostels procure low quality ingredients in bulk and cook in large kitchens with scanty regard for hygiene.
“The food here is also terrible. We have found bugs and hair in the food on occasions. I’ve stopped eating here and mostly eat out, though it costs me a lot more,” says Meera.
Hostels for men
There is a parallel ecosystem with similar ills for men too. Rules mandating minimum requirements of area or presence of warden and CCTV cameras have been framed for hostels that house women and children. The men’s hostels operate in a vacuum with no threat from authorities.
The many ‘mansions’ (as they are colloquially referred to) housing men who work and study in the city are also overcrowded. The Public Health Act 1939 mandates a licence for any lodge that cooks food on a large scale. But that is completely ignored, as most of the hostels function clandestinely out of apartment complexes, with domestic power and water connections.
“I share a room with three other guys in Choolaimedu. It is the only place I can afford at present, at Rs 3000 per month. The room is cramped and the building itself is in very poor condition, with old electrical fittings. The area has many ‘mansions’ like this as it is close to Loyola college. There are no facilities other than the bare minimum. The whole floor, which houses around sixteen of us, has two toilets only,” says Sashikumar K, a native of Karaikudi who moved to Chennai for employment.
The flagrant violation of the norms by hostel operators is an open secret. An official from the department of social welfare, who wished not to be named, said that the department was chronically short staffed and hence could not conduct regular inspections and crackdowns. Despite repeated warnings, very few hostels have voluntarily registered. The official stated that this is probably due to the hostels not meeting set standards and the owners under reporting their income.
Despite warnings from authorities and the threat of closure by the Collectorate, the lack of enforcement has allowed such hostels to thrive and mint money. Those who move in from other cities are deceived by the promises of an atmosphere of freedom and calm.
As illegal accommodations continue to thrive, the onus then falls on those seeking a place to stay to weed out unsafe and unhygenic hostels. “It is difficult to ascertain how good a place actually is from pictures online, as they almost always are worse when you see them up close. Since many people who look for places are migrants and may not speak the language, they end up in less than satisfactory hostels. That’s what happened in my case and I had to stay in a place without ventilation and proper lighting for six months before I familiarised myself with the city and convinced my parents to let me rent a house,” says Shrishti.