What are the rights and duties of a tenant?

The rights of a tenant are primarily focused on rent control which is evidenced by the preamble to the state statutes. It is on the basis of a policy or a course of action adopted by state governments to assure its citizens, who happen to be tenants, that the state enactment strikes a balance that is tilted in favour of them.

Because of the circumstances of World War II that bore down upon the rate at which rent was charged by the landlord at times of economic distress and rationing, the rent that was charged by landlords was frozen up until the time this type of administrative ordinance was lifted.

However, the unfortunate legacy of regulated rent, such as the enactment of the ‘Delhi Rent Control Act of 1958’ in favour of the tenant and in disfavour of the landlord, continued despite an economic recovery well past the end of World War II and, de facto, the administrative ordinance was never lifted in the spirit of the rectification in the law that was actually required.

This has continued till date because of an artificial shortage of housing and commercial space created by state governments and housing fraud carried out with impunity by developers which has had a cascading effect on buyer sentiment. Notwithstanding the above, landlords have attempted to counter the rights of the tenant by imposing high rents and financial guarantees in the form of 3-6 months of advance rent along with linked assurances or warranties in the lease to protect the property from damage by way of compensation before leasing the premises to a tenant for a limited term of 11 months only, subject to a renewal and then an automatic increase in the rate of rent.

By these types of overbearing arrangements, additional rights of the tenant have been discontinued by way of denying adverse possession to the tenant who along with kith and kin has traditionally enjoyed de facto privileges as owners in a leased property under existing, or as yet repealed, state statutes.

Despite this back story, the rights of a tenant under state statutes that are primarily focused on rent control have to be read along with their corresponding duties in order for a bonafide tenant to enjoy his or her right to habitability without undue interference by the landlord who is primarily motivated by the economic benefits of rent earned from leased property.

‘Right against unfair eviction’
Therefore, before the ‘right to fair rent’ is considered, it is important to focus firstly on the ‘right against unfair eviction’.

Under the existing law, the landlord does not possess the right to evict a tenant without showing ‘sufficient reason or cause’.

It is only a substantial breach of lease agreement by the tenant that vests with the landlord the right to evict a tenant such as the subletting of the leased premises by the tenant when there is a duty not to do so. Typical examples are found in government housing, where cash is collected as rent proceeds from such illegal transactions.

Another is the wilful default in payment of rent arrears where the tenant takes undue advantage of the law to enjoy habitability of the leased premises or extort the landlord into paying an undisclosed cash amount to free the property from adverse tenancy.

The ‘cause of action’ lies with the tenant in a civil matter when the landlord fails to comply with the warranty of inhabitability’, which means that the leased premises are rendered uninhabitable by the negligence or the wilful negligence of the landlord.

This usually translates into the landlord allowing for the disrepair of utilities, supplies of water and electricity to the disadvantage and discomfort of the tenant. This also includes the lack of safety features built into the leased premises subjecting the tenant to constant fear and anxiety of robbery or break-Ins and home invasions, rape and murder.

Rent Controller:
A ‘complaint’ on an application before the rent controller lies on the grounds that ‘under warranty of habitability’ the landlord has failed to comply with the conditions of the lease as promised and there is a breach of terms of the rent amount received in exchange for basic essential-services available to make the leased-premises habitable.

The ‘rent controller’ is obligated to conduct an impartial inquiry into the complaint and either admit or dismiss the complaint on the basis of its findings. Any adverse decision is liable to be appealed against before the High Courts, and then before the Supreme Court, for relief and redressal, which judicial authorities will either confirm or deny the findings of the rent controller and impose obligations on the landlord if found in favour of the tenant with the implied threat of contempt of court if the order-cum-judgment is not followed by the landlord.

It is also to be remembered that a ‘stay of eviction order’ of the ‘rent controller’ can be sought by the tenant in the form of an injunction if passed by the High Court in a ‘writ petition’.

Right to fair rent
On the subject of ‘right to fair rent’, market forces have primarily determined what that is — 8-10% of market value of the property — is the benchmark for the maximum rent that could be charged on the tenant, notwithstanding the 10% automatic increase in the rate of rent after expiry of the first lease agreement.

However, with regard to the enjoyment of this right, judicial decisions are awaited when challenged by parties before the courts.

Criminal Complaint against the Landlord
The ‘cause of action’ lies with the tenant in a ‘criminal matter’ when the landlord overtly threatens or verbally assaults the tenant with dire consequences if the compliant tenant does not vacate the premises against their will.

In such circumstances, and with the support of factual testimony of witnesses, the tenant has the right to file a ‘complaint’ before the Sub Divisional Magistrate [SDM] and/or the station house officer[SHO] of the police station under whose administrative jurisdiction the leased premises lie.

‘Under section 383 of IPC,1860 for extortion’ or ‘under section 503 of IPC, 1860 for threats of injury’ and ‘sections 499-500 for defamation of character of the tenant in the social community’.

There is, however, a caveat before civil or criminal actions are to be instituted by the tenant if a cause of action lies, which is that the corresponding duties must have been followed by the tenant because the Model Tenancy Act of 2021 is attempting to establish an equitable relationship while renting residential and commercial premises by the landlord to the tenant. In states and union territories, where adopted, counter action may lie with the landlord if the allegations of accusations are found to be false in order to acquire an economic benefit.

(The writer is an advocate)