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Running Paying Guest Accommodation – Is a Big Business in Cities.

Running Paying Guest Accommodation – Is a Big Business in Cities.

On 23rd of February this year, a fire broke out in one Paying Guest accommodation in Chandigarh in which three girls lost their lives.

My site was under construction and I was writing some blogs for posting on it. This was one of those blogs. The site got delayed because of the inexorable march of Corona, which changed everything. The year is coming to an end now, but the educational institutions haven’t yet started functioning again. Though the offices have started working and the slow trickle of the unmarried young boys and girls from places far and near, have started flowing back in the town for living in shared accommodations again. But the city is still not bustling with activity. The lucrative business of running Paying Guest Accommodations after running into huge losses is looking up.

Bringing that article to you now

Picture sourced from the Internet. It appeared in the Indian Express

All of them were just out of teens. They had all come from the nearby towns for bettering their prospects of getting good jobs which has a direct bearing on the quality of life one envisages from the commercial point of view. But all their dreams turned into piercing cries of helplessness. As they found themselves trapped in an inferno and suddenly. There was left nothing but smouldering half burnt articles and ashes of sad memories for their grieving relatives. One girl could just manage to call her father and say- “Papa aag lag gayi hai” (Dad, there’s a fire), but all three were hopelessly trapped.

Two of them were found wrapped in the blankets, hiding under their beds where they might have taken a shelter in the hope that they would be saved. From the very elementary knowledge that they might have gathered from some TV shows that one can escape the fire by wrapping a blanket around. I presume that they acquired this knowledge from the TV or the internet because even basic safety practices don’t find a place in our school curricula. They wrapped the blanket alright in the hope that they will be saved. But there was no rescue, there was none to save them in time, because unfortunately, in our country which is home to 130 Crore people, even if the system of prompt first aid exists on the paper, it doesn’t arrive in time.

There was nowhere for them to run to as the escape routes were obstructed and because there are no routine inspections by the administration to check compliance, violations are routine rather than exceptions. The flames and smoke quickly engulfed space and their cries were silenced forever.

Tragically, while there were many relatives of two girls, none had come for the third one. It was only after two days when her mother came looking for her dear one from the Czech Republic, did people come to know that she had no relatives in India and her mother, after the death of her husband had taken up a job in the Czech republic and her only other sibling, her sister, was in England.

Fortunately, it was an afternoon time of Friday, when the incident occurred and most of the other occupants of the crowded Paying Guest Accommodations were away to their homes or were out visiting their local friends or relatives or else many other lives would have been lost. The administration was rudely woken up from its perennial slumber. Although the business of illegal Paying Guest Accommodations has been thriving under its proverbial nose since decades. Nothing had been done to check their mushrooming or to regularize them.  Chandigarh is perhaps the biggest educational hub north of New-Delhi. It has the best institutions and preparatory schools. Children from Himachal and J & K come in hordes as do those from the neighboring small and far off towns of Punjab and Haryana where good educational facilities are not available.

Picture from Amar Ujala for representation purpose only

When I was in college, the hostels which formed the part of the college complex were the only places where students from other cities stayed. But that is out of fashion now. The facilities at the hostels are woefully lacking and the managements care a damn because running them is not commercially viable, unprofitable, and a kind of liability. But still they have to run them because it’s part of the packages they offer.

Moreover, because of the added responsibility that falls upon the college administrations and gets handed down as an additional burden to the teaching staff, it’s like a “dead snake around one’s neck” that none would like to have. In addition to that, the regulations are stringent and the colleges and institutes can’t play around with statutory requirements. Besides that, there are strict meal timings and curfew hours to abide by, which the students don’t want.  To top it all, there is always an absolute ban on the guests of opposite sex visiting the occupants.

In the days gone by, besides weekly inspections of the rooms there used to be random checks to take the erring students by surprise. What to speak of being found having electrical gadgets like immersion heaters for heating water for bath in the freezing winters and electric irons for ironing clothes which were necessities. The discovery of a hidden transistor was considered a serious crime. God forbid is a magazine with some suggestive poses of girls on the center-spread were found, rustication could result. (Debonair was one magazine I remember that used to have just one hazy, grainy center-spread with, not nude but bold and suggestive pose (from the conservative standards that were prevalent then).

The world of the young generation has changed a lot since. What was unthinkable in the 70s is considered the entry-level now. There are hostels still attached to old colleges and departments of universities but they are inadequate, dirty and restrictive. One doesn’t get accommodation in the hostels even if one is sincerely looking for it, and that happens only when one can’t resist the directive of one’s parents. Staying in the hostels these days is considered tacky. You don’t want your friends to sneer at you.

The regular colleges and the universities still to quite some extent can provide hostel accommodations to their students. In fact, the old institutions that have been around since the inception of Chandigarh were allotted vast areas by the administration. They initially had enough room to accommodate the students admitted in the hostels. But over the years, new courses were introduced but more hostels were not constructed. So, now they neither have enough rooms to accommodate all the students nor do the students want to live in those old, crumbly accommodations lacking very basic amenities. The main problem is of small institutes that provide coaching for a short duration. What to talk of providing boarding facilities to their pupils, thousands of institutions that provide short term courses, to prepare the students for various competitive exams don’t even own the places from where they conduct their businesses.

They take on rent small spaces meant for offices and godowns and convert those into classrooms by erecting wooden partitions. From the full-page advertisements that they run in the local dailies for days at end, one can easily say that they make crores. But providing accommodation to their pupils is not their business and is the least of their concerns. So, where should the children who come from other towns should stay? Such institutes tie-up with the Paying Guest Accommodation in the neighboring areas and recommend those to the parents of the children who enroll with them.

The small houses that people have converted into Paying Guest accommodations aren’t designed to accommodate too many people. Paying Guest Accommodation business is not lucrative unless the occupancy is high and people don’t like to stay in dormitories. So, the greedy owners partition the rooms to provide so-called privacy. The partitions are made using plywood, wooden and plastic boards, and other incandescent materials. This is a recipe for a disaster.

Chandigarh: A view of charred remains of a house following a fire, in Chandigarh, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. Three young women died during the mishap. (PTI Photo)(PTI2_22_2020_000172B)- Sourced from internet- I have no rights over the picture.

The story, I am sure is the same in all towns that have become educational hubs. The children need accommodations and they can’t pay the exorbitant rents for hiring those, so they have to make do with partitioned or shared rooms and common toilets. I doubt if it is any better in other countries. I visited my son at Sydney in 2013. Though he was staying at a place that stood on a plot measuring around 500 Sqr. Yrds. (about 400 Sqr. Mtrs.) but the covered area was not even half of it and that was all made of timber. It sat on the stilts.

It had only four small rooms and two toilets cum bathrooms, a common kitchen and a small sitting area. The place owned by a Chinese migrant was nearly worth a million dollars then. It must be a lot more, perhaps nearly double that amount now. But four migrant children with stars in their eyes and all from different countries shared that place whose floors creaked when one walked on them howsoever lightly. The whole thing being of wood, could burn down to ashes in a matter of hours. There were no fire precautions or contingency plans against emergencies but one could run out in the open easily.

A Small bunk and living area where in Beijing one girl who was staying there, sent this picture to me.

The whole business of running a Paying Guest Accommodations is illegal, but they are all over the world. Even in the countries where laws are stringent. As it is true of any business venture in India, it is impossible to run a PG if one wants to go by the book and wishes to comply by all regulations. Good governance is just a slogan that may make you feel good and ease of doing business is a myth.

Even the application forms are so complicated that a common man cannot fill those without the assistance of the touts. The people who think they are intelligent enough to fill the forms. Without the assistance of the agents get the taste of officialdom at the windows where the forms undergo scrutiny. The seasoned clerks can differentiate between the people who come through the ‘proper’ channel and those who want to test the time tested system of favors and commissions, from the presence or the absence of the ‘ code mark’ on the form presented to them for the scrutiny.

This is not a train compartment but hostel accommodation in Beijing.

The administrations from time to time make big announcements. Every time their intent is cleaning the system. But at the ground level but nothing changes. They have to ensure that in all new procedures their commissions remain intact.

If the touts are cleared from the premises of the offices. They don’t stop providing their good services to the people. They just shift their “base” or what in Hindi is called as  “adda”  and continue to work as usual. Since a PG is for giving tenancy to unknown people. The security angle, given the present possibility of terrorist and unsocial activities due, can’t be overlooked. So, police verification and background check of the people who hire such places is mandatory. Besides that, it becomes a place for commercial use. So commercial rates of water and electricity must apply and above all the place must conform to the stringent regulations regarding safety against fire.

There is another very important aspect to take in to account. Considering our social values and the frequent incidents of rape, elopement, even love Jehad, the complete account of who comes to meet the tenants is also necessary. If you think, you can meet all regulations covering these aspects. You need to think again and again, before applying for a license to run a PG.

Apna Hindustan waise hi chalta hai jaise chalta tha aur sarkarein ayeingi aur jayeingi par desh waise hi chalega. (Our Hindustan works the they way it always did. The governments will come and go but the country will continue to run the way it has been doing). For example, in the recent times the whole processes of submitting the applications for various jobs have been digitized to bypass the touts and agents but has it made things simpler for the people? You ask anyone.

There must be a long list of sanctions that one has to get from the relevant authorities before starting a PG and the most difficult to get would be from the Fire Department. Besides their rules being tough, it’s their wont to act pricey. After all it’s not so often that people go to them for getting permissions and when they have to do, it becomes necessary for them to show how important they are, by throwing their weight around and asking their share of pound of flesh. Just think of it, how often do you think of them, about how they scrape their living? Do you even know where the Fire Station nearest to your home is?

As regards the safety precautions in the residential areas. I don’t think there are any regulations regarding fire safety in place in India. I haven’t seen any Indian home having even as little as a fire extinguisher. And I have never seen onsite audits or inspections being carried out in my town which is one of the premier towns in the country, nor is there any requirement of getting any clearance from the fire department or getting the housing plan approved by them before constructing the house.

In every Indian town, there are localities that are so crowded. The lanes are so congested that the Fire Tenders can’t even reach the locations. Even in the well-planned cities the overhead cables, including the transmission cables run so low and hang loose that what to say of Fire Tenders even small trucks can’t pass without someone standing in them and lifting the sagging cables clear with a bamboo staff.

Chandigarh can boast of broader lanes. But now because of the rows of cars parked on either side of the lanes. The clear space in the lanes is not enough even for the cars coming from the opposite directions to pass without giving way. I am sure it will be impossible for the fire tenders to reach the spot should a fire break out in a residential quarter.  It seems that it will take an unfortunate incident of fire to happen for the administration to think about it in this planned city.

For now, the administration has gone in overdrive to put a clampdown on all PGs. The Estate office has just twelve or fourteen PGs registered with them in their records. After this incident, they asked the people to come forward to get their PGs registered. People have their own reasons to doubt the intentions of every directive the administrations come out with.

As the teams of the administration went around the town sealing the PGs flouting the rules. Suddenly the PGs began vanishing from the scenes. Their owners removed the boarders and all signs of running the business. The administration acted smartly this time. They provide a helpline number that anyone could call to report on the illegal PGs being run from residential areas. People started calling the number to report.  After about ten days of the incident, most of the PGs had either closed or gone underground. The children who were living in those cramped and partitioned accommodations had left for their homes.

The children were much harassed and worried. Their exams were round the corner and their studies were definitely suffering because of this turmoil. Some stories of the apathy of the administration also surfaced. One woman went on record complaining that she had been running from pillar to post since 2004 for getting her Paying Guest Accommodation registered. Despite applying for it repeatedly, she couldn’t get the sanction. Now when the administration personnel came around checking for the papers. Her PG was sealed on account of lack of those.

There is another important angle to it that I will like to mention before closing this article and that is about ‘disclosing income.’ It is a wide spread belief in India that if you want to do business here with utmost sincerity. You might as well not do it, because you will see most of your earnings ending up in the pockets of the charlatans and the crooks, who are so intrinsic part of the gubernatorial machinery. All you will gain in the end will be tensions and headaches. It will be much better to do charity instead.

The lesson that I have learned from my life is that money is the main cause of one’s troubles. It is not going to remain with you anyway, but till you are there and it is there with you, it will cause you more trouble than bringing happiness. Other people need it more than you do. So, if you don’t give it away voluntarily, they will snatch it or devise the ways of getting it from you.

People think that paying taxes is a form of charity in India. It gets used up for making the swathes of vote bank happy. In the process, it also makes the whole lot of people who are involved in the process of its disbursement, happy, and richer. The benefits that trickle to you for your sincerity are more like the hissing sound from the tap. It’s a kind of an assurance that water will come from the tap, but it doesn’t.

All this about the Paying Guest Accommodations was written in March, before the lock-down. The Paying Guest Accommodations have all gone out of business as distance learning is in. I do not know when will the regular coaching start. As businesses are reopening, the people who had left the big towns and headed home, are coming back. Once again the demand for low-cost shared accommodations in big cities is rising. I hope, the administration will remain vigilant now. Some more young lives will not be lost because of negligence, bypassing of rules or sheer stupidity of some people.

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Navneet Bakshi

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Suresh Rao
7 months ago

What a heart wrenching tragedy.

Suresh Rao
7 months ago
Reply to  Suresh Rao

It is not enough to huddle Paying Guests by providing bunker beds! Such accommodations must have common kitchens where they can cook food for themselves with all fire safety in such homes.

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