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Rumble in urban India’s RWA jungle

Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

  • Post lockdown, some housing societies have clearly overreached. But there has also been great community spirit
  • RWAs have come under the scanner for overreach and even exclusionary behaviour. But some are also coming together to provide food and rations for out-of-work part-timers

On 28 March, a list spread like wildfire on WhatsApp groups in the capital. It had names, addresses, flight details, passport numbers and contact information of 722 residents of South Delhi who had travelled to covid-19-affected countries. Many of the city’s resident welfare association (RWA) groups circulated this list, alerting residents about people in the list who are from their own localities.

The source of this list, however, remains unknown. B.M. Mishra, district magistrate, South Delhi, said that neither of the 10 district magistrates in the capital have circulated this list and that he is unaware of where it may have come from.

“We received it from our councillor, and it is authentic. We verified with those from our blocks," said the president of a society federation in a gated colony in South Delhi, on condition of anonymity. “This kind of step is necessary and good for both the government and the people. Yes, maybe some of the details could have been avoided, but what can we do when even celebrities are hiding cases?" he asked.

On the other hand, the RWAs of Hamilton Court, Regency Park and Windsor Court in DLF, Gurgaon, took a somewhat different approach. They independently tracked down the travel histories of residents by sending out a declaration form, which had to be submitted to the estate office in each building.

“The names have not been put up on the notice board, and only a few office bearers are aware of the particulars. The guards have been told because we have to ensure that quarantine is followed," said Jugjiv Singh, a member of the crisis management committee for the three condominiums. “There has been a discussion on privacy and we decided that in general, these names and addresses must not be publicly known."

The difference between the two approaches lies at the heart of how RWAs are coping with an unprecedented moment. Since the government announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March to stall coronavirus, RWAs across urban India have been at the forefront of this battle.

Sanitizers to WhatsApp

With most residents parked at home, these urban bodies have had a lot to work on. Sanitizers and thermal screening procedures have become ubiquitous at strictly-guarded gates, and circles made of chalk have emerged outside local kirana shops. Some RWAs have quickly acted to ensure fake news does not spread within their gated communities while others have actively been involved in its dissemination. They are also coming together to provide food and rations for the out-of-work daily-wage labourers in their neighbourhoods.

There have been extraordinary instances of community spirit. For instance, eye specialist Ruby Makhija, who is the general secretary of the RWA in Navjivan Vihar in South Delhi, worked to ensure the Mother Dairy store located within the colony was accessible to those who lived outside. She took the help of the society gardeners, who doubled up as “errand boys" to make sure essentials were delivered to those waiting at the gate. At the same time, RWAs have come under the scanner for overreach and even exclusionary behaviour. Some of it has even been undemocratic. For instance, the RWA for Delhi’s Vasant Vihar asked residents to “refrain from posting messages on social media platforms" and suggested its president be the “only one source of information for all the residents". As Meera K., founder of Citizen Matters, a civic news media platform, puts it, “There are ingrained biases in our society. This is an extraordinary situation that is seeing both kindness and empathy, as well as pettiness and prejudice."

How do these abuses of power by RWAs rest with anecdotal instances of kindness? Has there been greater democracy and participation by residents during this crisis? Has a new sociological dynamic—even if it is temporary—been created within local bodies?

Halfway house

RWAs are voluntary, legal associations, typically registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, “intended to promote the interests of families and individuals who share specific space of residence", writes sociologist Sanjay Srivastava in his book Entangled Urbanism. But they do not really have any statutory power. In the present climate, this makes them a sort of halfway house in terms of rule-making to ensure the lockdown is followed.

This legal position has also raised questions regarding policing and overreach over the years. As Srivastava writes, “In almost all cases, RWA office-holders are elected to their positions (of President, Secretary, etc), with elderly males constituting a substantial number. There is a tendency to favour retired officers of the armed forces as RWA functionaries, perhaps seeking to attach the aura of military discipline to that of the modern housing locality."

These existing constructs of class, caste, and gender within the associations, along with the Bhagidari programme rolled out by the state government in Delhi in 2000, solidified the place of RWAs in shaping urban issues. The programme gave RWAs control over “affairs of the city", which included management of parks, community halls, sanitation facilities and local roads and granted them direct access to funds as well as local officers in the capital.

It is in this context that Srivastava warns that this extraordinary situation would be a test of character for RWAs. “RWAs need to develop a new understanding of their own role. That is, they will need to have a realistic understanding of which measures will actually help to prevent the virus and which are simply derived from their tendency to act as an autocratic form of local government."

The latter, Srivastava maintains, if not questioned, could lead to a “post-pandemic city that is even more deeply gated, anti-poor, anti-single women and anti all those who might be considered outsiders."

Eyes and ears of babus

Weeks before the lockdown, district magistrate Mishra created a WhatsApp group with the various RWAs, market traders associations, chemists and pharmacies within his jurisdiction. He said they have proactively assisted him in keeping a watch on quarantined families within their communities and disseminating functional information, such as a list of grocery stores that are doing home delivery. “RWAs are also helping us by sending information with respect to any symptomatic person," said Mishra.

Still, since the associations themselves have no statutory authority to enforce the law, it is their trigger-happiness in reaching out to the authorities which sets them apart from one another. Makhija of Navjivan Vihar, for instance, maintains that none of the regulations—such as restricted entry and exit from the colony—are “imposed" on residents, but only offered as advisories. In other places, however, the police has been called in to offer a more coercive means of ensuring compliance.

Sanjeev K. Dang, president of the RWA in pocket B, Sarita Vihar, has been facing some backlash while implementing the rule to prevent walking within the colony. “We are getting complaints from residents saying people are roaming around and we must stop them. We have asked the police who said they will come, but haven’t yet. If they punish even a single person and we have a video, and we circulate that video, it will stop automatically," says Dang.

Given that adherence to lockdown rules impacts everyone in the society to a degree far greater than, say, non-payment of a maintenance fee, it increases the chance of gross misuse.

So too is the case with privacy

After the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi in early March—attended by people across the country and the world before the lockdown was announced—resulted in covid-19 positive cases, including a number of related deaths in Telangana, the pandemic has taken on a communal tone.

This has also resulted in an aggressive circulation of personal information of anyone in the vicinity of the event. Since RWAs coordinate directly with the state machinery to ensure compliance, it gives them access to data which must necessarily belong only with the government.

Advocate and author Gautam Bhatia said the fault is not entirely of the RWAs. Clarifying the legal position, he said, “This is a disproportionate invasion of privacy. The state’s failure to provide the infrastructure required for testing has compelled it to adopt this clumsy solution, where RWAs are given all personal details and asked to report people who might possibly be symptomatic."

Stories of Discrimination...

Initially there was news of residents discriminating against Air-India’s staffers who had returned after evacuating Indians from covid-19-affected countries. A similar fate was met by healthcare workers, who were being forcefully evicted in different parts of the country owing to their exposure to the virus.

Vipin Krishnan, former general secretary, AIIMS Nurses Union, said he did not personally face this discrimination, but his colleagues did. “There are many people—our kidney transplant coordinator is from Kerala and she was forced to get out of her rented room. People are afraid of medicos because they feel we are infected. But if they throw us out, are they immune of the infection? Ultimately they have to come to us only, right? And in the hospital, we would never reject anyone," he told Mint.

Eventually, the home ministry stepped in to ensure no such incident is repeated. During this crisis, stigma has appeared in various forms. Perhaps the most immediate of these was the way part-time domestic help has been treated in the context of social distancing owing to the lockdown.

In Bengaluru, for instance, the residents of Mantri apartments were reproached by their RWA. They received a message saying members were “resorting to a new low, that of concealing maids/cooks in their cars to gain access into the complex and taking them back out in the evening/night." As a result, among other measures, all vehicles will be checked “for maids/cooks/drivers, including the boot of cars."

In Coimbatore, a freelance editor who chooses to remain anonymous, said, “Despite our push for the association to discuss the measures it was taking to safeguard the workers (as all their messages revolved around the residents’ health), no clear indication was given that they were considering it seriously at all."

...and Compassion

Today, as migrant labour in the thousands set out on foot or throng homeless shelters with no financial safety net, this part-time help gives a stark reminder of the urban poor, a section which has for long been sequestered behind high-rises. The pandemic has today made domestic help a conspicuous presence, thanks to their enforced absence.

While in many societies, RWAs have faced resistance regarding the disallowance of part-time domestic help, many RWAs such as that of Espacia in Noida, NCR, have taken a more compassionate approach. “Today as the spread of the virus is from affluent to the less affluent as most of the cases have become visible from international travellers and not the shanty/slum dwellers," wrote Captain Hemant Rudra from the apartment owners association (AoA) team, in his note explaining why domestic help must be stopped from entering their building.

Some, such as the Hamilton Court, Regency Park, Windsor Court consortium of condominiums in Gurgaon, have also made sure to include in their advisories that domestic help must necessarily be paid. In Mumbai, Bipin Ved, president of a housing society in Saki Vihar led by example. “We prepared a list of things that weren’t allowed—we dropped all vendors, maids, house maids. The watchmen coming in are also limited and they also have to wear protective gear. There is 100% no entry of outsiders in the society, not even relatives. It is a clampdown," he said.

The example of Radhika Menon, who teaches at Delhi University, reflects the contradictions in RWAs. On 30 March, the RWA released a notice demanding that residents continue to pay domestic help during the lockdown, even if they aren’t being allowed to come to work. This, she says, was a result of member activism. “The way an RWA responds often depends upon how other residents look at the matter. It also depends entirely upon the persons in the RWA. Some are concerned about their neighbours and workers too, but some are just interested in lording over people," she said.

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