No home away from home

July 18, 2021

The recent fire at a girls’ hostel in Lahore has raised serious concerns with regard to the tenants’ safety and security

Hostels located in residential areas are often unregistered: “They may have names, but you’d never know what unless you live there.” — Photo by Rahat Dar
Hostels located in residential areas are often unregistered: “They may have names, but you’d never know what unless you live there.” — Photo by Rahat Dar

Every year, hundreds of young women come to the bustling metropolitan city of Lahore from different parts of the country, for education or work. Privately owned hostels offer them accommodation. But these women have several considerations before they can decide on a place to rent in the city of over eleven million people. So, when the news of a fire at some girls’ hostel came out recently, there were bound to be serious concerns with regard to their safety and security.

For the uninitiated, early this month, fire erupted in a two-storey, private girls’ hostel near Safari Park on Raiwind Road. It suffocated three women to death and left many injured. The rescue team identified a short circuit as the cause of the blaze. The incident was widely reported in the media, and Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar took notice and asked the CCPO to investigate the matter.

In all the reports, one detail was kept out — the hostel’s name. This raised an important question: why are name plaques often not displayed outside the girls’ hostels?

Fatima Batool, an MPhil student, who graduated from the University of Central Punjab (UCP), Lahore, says that this is “standard practice.” The hostels, especially those located in residential areas, do not display the names so as to avoid undue traction around the place.

This has encouraged many people to turn their private homes into hostel spaces, often illegally. They provide the tenants — in this case, the young students and office workers — with bed and breakfast at affordable rates.

But there are issues the tenants have to deal with. Rida Zainab, a young working woman, tells TNS, “While it is possible to find a decent place to put up at, quality messing and a hassle-free stay remain a problem.” She says hostels located in residential areas are often unregistered: “They may have names, but you’d never know what unless you live there.”

Batool seconds Zainab, saying that the hostels are “not advertised with their names. The contact number and location given on their brochure are your only cues to getting to the hostel.”

Multi-storey hostels in areas like Mozang also don’t have name plaques. “Scattered around Safaan Wala Chowk and its surroundings are many girls’ hostels, but you won’t get to know about their names, even though droves of young women are based there,” says a physiotherapist who is employed at a local hospital.

The most important concern for all parents sending their children, especially daughters, to a city, is their safety. Hence, most opt for on-campus residences. Unfortunately, not all educational institutions offer on-campus accommodation, with the result that many young women are forced to opt for private places.

“There’s a warden, a couple of security guards, and 24-hour surveillance of the premises at university accommodations, but these services aren’t necessarily available at private hostels,” says Shahwaiz Faiz, a young pharmacist. Throughout her five-year-long degree course at Akhtar Saeed Medical and Dental College, Faiz was housed in a university-rented building in Bahria Town.

“The on-campus accommodation was overwhelmed,” she says. “So the university rented another building close by to cater for the demand. But it had all the perks of an on-campus residency.”

Monthly expenses, including rent, were a little over what an average private hostel would charge, but the facilities provided made up for that, Faiz adds. “Unlike private hostels that do not take residents’ security too seriously, it wasn’t easy to just scoot off; there were proper procedures in place.”

On the other hand, Batool and Zainab both lament the fact that there is no security at the premises of the places they rented. Paying Rs 9,000 a month for her room that she shares with other roommates in a housing society close to the University of Lahore (UoL), Zainab says that security remains an issue. “There is not even a guard on duty, but the 10:30pm curfew is in place.”

Not all educational institutions offer on-campus accommodation.— Photo courtesy:
Not all educational institutions offer on-campus accommodation.— Photo courtesy:

Most young women choose to live in hostels that are run by families because they deem these to be safer places. It is only after experiencing issues such as the tantrums of the landlords, water shortages, and electricity shortfalls that these women realise how inconvenient these otherwise affordable accommodations can be.

Regular maintenance is also not a priority with most private hostels in the city. Batool says that she had the chance to visit many such places, and she “realised that none of them offered the kind of facilities we had at the UCP hostel. We had fire-extinguishers on all floors of the building, backup generators and running water.”

This scribe called a private hostel, ranked among the best in the city, to get some information about their room rent, and it transpired that they weren’t averagely priced rooms. It was also interesting to note that the management’s name was displayed in bold letters outside the building in the pictures available online.

There are numerous low-range hostels in areas like Johar Town, Raiwind, and Township, that could appeal to a young person from a middle-income background coming to the city for the first time. However, most such places do not have proper websites, and the ones that are listed on other sites don’t have anything to show for their claims — dummy pictures are all that you see.

In the final analysis, experiencing city life while remaining within a budget is a difficult trek to navigate. Private hostels are a budget-friendly option for most women, and the owners of these hostels are ready to exploit this opportunity, which is fine as long as they provide the required facilities and services.

First and foremost, in order to ensure the safety of their inmates, all hostels must be registered. Also, so that in the event of a mishap, parties can be held accountable.

Secondly, emergency exits, fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, and other safety networks must be put in place. Without proper checks and balances, private accommodations, especially for women, will continue to shrug their responsibilities and provide below-average services because they know that girls looking for pocket-friendly rentals do not have many options.

The writer is a staff member

No home away from home