Representational image of Powai, Mumbai. The Pew survey 'Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation' crystalized something we've known all along: people prefer neighbours from similar religious backgrounds, even in Mumbai.
At the peak of the COVID-19 crisis last year when developers in Mumbai were in utter panic, a prospective home buyer decided to take the plunge and buy an apartment. His preferred project was one which was close to completion and had sold only one-third the inventory, causing the developer a challenge in servicing his loans. The buyer showed interest but the desperate builder rejected the buyer. The builder was not foolish or delusional in his price expectations. He merely faced a challenge that has been almost impossible to penetrate in Mumbai real estate – a Muslim homebuyer.
I was reminded of this episode after reading a recent report by the Pew Research Centre titled ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’. The key inference of the Pew survey was that while Indians say it is important to respect all religions, major religious groups see little in common and want to live separately.
For me, one data set is worth delving into from a housing perspective. That data set is – Indians who say they would not be willing to accept people from another religious group as neighbours.
The finding is clear – there is resistance to seeing people from another community stay next to you: 36% of Hindus and 33% Sikhs would not be willing to accept a Muslim as a neighbour. Additionally, 25% of Muslims and Sikhs would similarly not want a Christian living next-door to them; 54% of Jains would not want a Muslim neighbour; while 47% would not be willing to have a Christian neighbour. The Buddhists seem the most flexible in their choice of neighbours.
In one way, the survey has broken new ground in bringing out a reality that has long existed. In another way, from a Mumbai real estate perspective, I have to concede that a survey done exclusively for the city – would throw substantially higher numbers. By national benchmarks, it is believed that Mumbai is an outlier where religion matters for little. It’s a good narrative. There is only one problem: It’s not true. And it is definitely untrue when it comes to housing.
Parsis and Christians try to enable their own cocoons which permit sale or rent often only to people from their own community. The Jains prefer being only around other Jains, to the extent that there are localities that have restaurants which don’t even dare to serve non-vegetarian food. Muslims prefer having members of their own community in a locality.
Due to a combination of demographics and poverty, the biggest discrimination is often faced by members of the middle and upper middle-class Muslim community. They are torn between not wanting to reside in the chaotic ghettos while being rejected from housing opportunities in localities that they want to reside in. It is tough to arrive at a specific number on this but I would reckon that at least 50% of Hindus would be uncomfortable with a Muslim neighbour. And that number would go as high as 70% with Jains. Remember, 66% of Mumbai’s population is Hindu and 4.1% follow Jainism.
On the principle of fair and equal housing, it is undeniable that the Muslim community has received a raw deal over the years. At the same time, it is hard to argue against the concerns that several people have with regards to Muslims.
I’m aware that there are reservations over food habits that act as a thorn in the flesh for a few communities. To be honest, I am not sure if that is a major reason for the discrimination. There are bigger reasons at work in my view. On one extreme is the perception that members of the Muslim community can be a security and safety threat, and need to be shunned. At the centre is a view that has been fostered by looking at the shoddy conditions of Muslim-dominated localities. On the other extreme is the financial point of view that says ownership of apartments by a meaningful number of Muslims in a particular project or locality often results in a decline in property values.
It’s a complex phenomenon, and I take no decisive view on the subject. However, I will say that the perception against Muslims is exaggerated in comparison to ground reality. The problem is that there appears to be no solution in sight. At the public housing level there is little that can be done, given how compromised Mumbai’s housing administration is. Countries like Singapore promote inclusivity through public housing where residents of different communities are given allocation in the same premises. On the other hand, private housing is now a victim of a virtuous cycle where discrimination is so entrenched that it appears almost impossible to penetrate. The only solution, albeit slow, is if developers and societies evaluate each buyer on their individual merit and approve those that fit the sensibilities of that particular society.
In the end – the Pew Survey shows us the mirror to who we have always been. We respect other religions – as long as it is from a distance.