The outburst of COVID-19 has left countless Indians in financial straits. While the transmission of the virus has pushed the economy to an unprecedented standstill, mass unemployment and disruptions are suggesting the chances of a possible recession. Amid such a scenario, a simmering unease and discontent are palpable in connection with the issue of non-payment of rent by tenants. While renters in several States are protected by a temporary moratorium, the fear of eviction among the masses looms large.

With the outbreak of novel Coronavirus, we are witnessing an unusual scenario that has not only disrupted our economic and organisational norms but has also grimly impacted our relationships - both social and interpersonal. While the Indian Government is taking several proactive measures to contain the spread of the virus, a prominent question is doing the rounds, i.e. whether tenants across the Nation would be exempted from paying rent during the crisis. If yes, then up to what extent? And if no, then how will it impact the landlord-tenant relationship? More so, what are the legal remedies available to the tenants in case the landlords force them to vacate the premises amid the Coronavirus outbreak?

In all such scenarios, there is a need to understand that the government has announced several rent relief measures for tenants, keeping in mind the impending economic depression and a possible wave of homelessness in the near future. For instance, in Delhi, the Chief Minister has requested the landlords to forgive rent for three months. Following suit, the Uttar Pradesh government had earlier issued a magisterial order to imprison or fine landlords who fail to defer rent collection by at least a month. Similarly, the Maharashtra government had also issued instructions to house owners to delay rent collection for three months in the wake of the current COVID-19 crisis. In addition, the respective States have also asked landlords not to evict tenants for non-payment. While the announcements made by the government have indeed provided some breather to the tenants, the point to remember here is that the circulars issued by the government are more or less advisory in nature and do not legally absolve tenants from rental dues.

However, if the tenant belongs to the economically depressed section of the society or is a student, he/she can seek relief under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. To apprise, The Union Ministry of Home Affairs, in an order dated March 29, 2020, had stated that the landlords would be liable for action under the Disaster Management Act if found guilty of pressurising the labourers or students to vacate the premises amid the crisis. 

Can the landlord order eviction for non-payment of rent?

Well, the answer to this is yes. A landlord has the right to approach the court in case of non-payment of rent by the tenant. The tenant cannot use COVID-19 as an excuse to gain an advantage of the situation. In Maharashtra, however, landlords can provide the eviction notice only after three months of non-payment of rent. 

An important point to note here is that the landlords, even in general, cannot dispossess the tenant without providing a 30-day eviction notice and due time to the tenant for paying the rent, along with the arrears, if any. If this does not happen, the tenant can approach a civil court and request for restoration of possession under the provisions of specific relief acts.

As apprised by Aradhana Bhansali, Partner, Rajani Associates, “The current situation has forced tenants to approach their respective landlords for waiver or reduction in rent. While in many cases, landlords have adopted an empathetic view and provided a full waiver of rent during the period of the lockdown, some others have provided only a certain amount of reduction in the rentals. However, whatever the quantum of the reduction be, these waivers came through negotiations and discussions between the parties. In the case of forceful eviction at the hands of the landlord, the law makes it clear that it can only happen after due process of the law. The eviction is through a judgment/order passed by a competent court.”

What are the possible solutions?

Given the present conditions, eviction of tenants and their family is definitely not a humanitarian move, and therefore, landlords and tenants have been advised to put their heads together to arrive at a consensus. In cases of dispute, the parties to an agreement are suggested to consider mediation or a novation of contract, which is meant to benefit both parties. Once things get back to normalcy, the parties can again shift to the original rentals or continue with the temporary arrangement for as long as they might deem fit. In case the tenant has not moved to the new house, he/she can seek a refund of the security deposit from the landlord. It is legal!