By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, Jan 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, an Indian real estate company ran an advertisement with the slogan 'Homes that don't discriminate', calling for an end to prejudice in India's housing market based on gender, religion or caste.
While the ad was unusual, the sentiment was familiar to millions of Indians who have tried to rent or buy city homes only to be denied because they were single, ate meat, were of a certain caste or from a certain region.
Informal rules and discrimination by Indian landlords to keep out religious minorities and single people are eroding the multi-cultural nature of India's cities and dividing communities into ghettos, analysts say.
"It's 2017 - and we're still encountering discrimination," said Rishi Dogra of NestAway Technologies that ran the ad.
"People should be able to move freely and find a living space anywhere in the country," said Dogra, marketing head for the company founded by four young male graduates after they had trouble finding a home in Bengaluru.
Such discrimination has forced many people to the suburbs, making Indian city centres less diverse and cosmopolitan, with high rents already making them unaffordable to poorer workers.
Mumbai, India's financial hub and a magnet for migrants from across the country, has traditionally had enclaves for Catholics, Parsis, Bohri Muslims and others. They set up housing societies, or co-operatives, to help other community members.
As the city grew and drew more migrants, powerful housing societies have often denied homes on the basis of religion, caste, food preferences and even professions.
The divide grew after bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in 1992-93 and still persists, said Zakia Soman, a co-founder at Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a non-profit organisation for Muslim women.
A Facebook group called 'Indians Against Discrimination' was set up in 2015 after a young Muslim woman was asked to leave her flat a week after she moved in, because of her religion.
"When it comes to living spaces, we have become very insular," Soman said.
"The city is getting increasingly ghettoised as a result, weakening our social fabric and polarising us further. That doesn't bode well," she said.
Local courts have ruled against discrimination by housing associations in several cases, but there have also been contradictory rulings.
In a 2005 case, India's top court ruled in favour of a Parsi housing society in Ahmedabad, saying it could limit its membership to Parsis and not admit others.
"The constitution guarantees our right to equality, but housing societies can still frame their own guidelines which may be discriminatory," said Vinod Sampat, a real estate lawyer.
A draft housing policy for Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is located, has dropped a clause that prevents discrimination in housing. This may leave those looking to rent or buy property with fewer protections, Sampat said.
Government officials have said non-discrimination is already protected by the constitution, so there is no need for the clause.
That has not reassured people like Shikha Makan, who made a film called 'Bachelor Girls' on housing bias against single women - including Bollywood actors - in Mumbai.
"Not being able to find a home in a big city like Mumbai is a shame," she said.
"It is marginalising single women and other minorities."