New Delhi: A new four-foot wall of brick and concrete marks a stretch of the border between Gurgaon and New Delhi, built by the local Resident Welfare Association (RWA) to keep troublemakers out.
As soon as it was erected, two sections came tumbling down—and different groups within the association blame each other for the damage. One camp says the rival side knocked it over and the accused returns the volley with charges of poor engineering and rainwater floods.
While the wall has broken, the dispute has created yet another rift among residents.The two sides are at once common and complex: locals versus newcomers, old money versus new money, ideological entrants to a political system versus old hands.
This Sunday, the battle for leadership in Sector 23 will be decided as the RWA holds elections for its new board. While many such local governance institutions remain largely irrelevant, members and leaders even begged to join, this campaign has been an oddly intense one—rife with physical threats, and accusations of forged paperwork, self-interest, and underlying communal tension. Both sides claim the election’s outcome will determine the direction of development in this growing section of Gurgaon, and in many ways, it is a sign of the growing prominence and clout of local welfare associations in India’s new suburbs.
Wall of contention: A new wall built to keep troublemakers out is the latest symbol of the rift within the sector as the run-up to the local body elections has been bitter and rife with allegations and counter-allegations of forgery and self-interest. (Photo: Ashwani Nagpal)
Sector 23 serves as home to both the no-nonsense, law-and-order sensibility of retired defence officers and to the dozens of pigs that wander aimlessly in packs from the bordering villages of Bijwasan and Carterpuri. The latter is named after it once hosted the American president.
Elegant bungalows sit next to piles of construction materials. The sector—so named after the once faroff village of Gurgaon began to be divided into residential and commercial plots as it converted into suburb—is home to manicured, gated plots, including the place that served as headquarters for the infamous kidney-selling racket. Even the numbering system conveys a sense of contradiction and confusion in identity, house number 691 sits next to 3,356.
RWAs have no prescribed legal authority but, many like the one in Sector 23, have become major players in local governance, in the absence of overwhelmed municipalities providing services and utilities. The associations are usually responsible for tasks such as making sure the streets are clean, the trees are taken care of, and the residents are safe. But especially in places like Gurgaon, where infrastructure concerns loom large for the city’s residents, RWAs have become conduits to the state’s urban development authority to demand access to basic needs like water and power.
“It is a positive, bottom-up approach,” says George Matthew, the director of New Delhi’s Institute of Social Sciences who writes about local government systems in India. “Now RWAs are quite powerful. They have supervisory and enforcement (roles), as well as kind of a citizens’ guardian responsibility.”
In places such as Gurgaon, elections also intensify in the face of residents’ frustration with local government’s failure—and their sheer newness to political organizations.
Major Gen. Satbir Singh, whose tenure as RWA president in Sector 23 ended last November, ticks off the association’s accomplishments like a cricket scorekeeper rattling off runs and statistics: 30 parks constructed, 2,000 trees planted, 25 transformers installed, roads re-carpeted, toilets installed in the market (his and hers), a generator for the district’s water source to ensure that the supply wouldn’t stop when the electricity did.
But, tensions started to simmer last year, with the occasional flier criticizing his administration. The heat turned up with complaints filed back and forth with the registrar’s office, and it started to boil over with violent general body meetings.
Now with elections looming, the two sides don’t even agree on what they are fighting about. The challengers, who are guided by former RWA president Col M.S. Joon, say it’s about abiding by constitutional requirements to term limits. Singh, who is serving as a patron for another slate of candidates, pins the blame on the construction of a school—with powerful connections—that local residents had complained about. The sides aren’t clear cut, with retired defense officers and long-time residents in both camps, and Singh cautions not to read too much into the row. In every home, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law fight,” he says. “The election does bring problems,” says J.S. Johan, who is running for general secretary, “but this is also a way to solve problems.”