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Gated wars and RWA warriors

Taru Bahl | Updated on June 12, 2020 Published on June 12, 2020

High-rise hamlets: Resident welfare associations are increasingly being viewed as modern-day panchayats that represent the collective ethos of the residential community   -  THE HINDU / RAJEEV BHATT

Resident welfare associations are the new pet peeve or knights in shining armour, depending on which house you ask, as apartments lock down to fight the virus and, often, each other

* While it’s true that RWAs were empowered to enforce social distancing norms to prevent the spread of Covid-19, with even government notifications recognising their role, it is equally true that quite a few of them overstepped their authority and began treating the apartment complexes like their fiefdoms

The nervous silence in an upscale condominium in Gurugram, where virtually nothing stirred during the pandemic-induced lockdown, was shattered by the arrival of a police van. The sight of the lone van in the complex set off a massive flutter on the community WhatsApp group, which was where all interactions happened in the absence of face-to-face meetings. The cops had landed after a seething resident formally complained against fellow residents who, she alleged, had “ganged up” to bully and intimidate her against allowing house help to resume work in the complex.

Apart from the usual resident welfare association (RWA) — which has office-bearers from the resident community overseeing the maintenance and other community affairs of the housing complex — the condominium had a specially constituted “Covid-19 taskforce”, which had stipulated its own lockdown rules in addition to those issued by the district administration. Among other restrictions, the so-called taskforce disallowed the use of part-time house help — namely, those who were not stay-in workers but travelled daily to the place of work, usually from nearby slum clusters. Arguments over the rule had heated up on WhatsApp and spilled over to reach the law enforcers.

The police found itself playing mediator and managed to calm both parties down. But this was not the first time during the lockdown (in place since March 25 to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus) that police help was sought by warring members of Gurugram’s housing societies. Complaints have ranged from residents walking in the gardens without masks to people omitting to disclose their international travel history.

The scene was no different in Noida and Greater Noida, also part of the National Capital Region. Brigadier Sudhir Hajela, RWA president at ATS Greens, Paradiso, a condominium with over 1,000 apartments, says the society and its residents have been in the news for the wrong reasons over the past 10 weeks. Several Chinese and Koreans live in the complex and are employed in factories located in Greater Noida. These residents began facing uncharitable comments following the Covid-19 outbreak and its reported origin in China.

Matters escalated after the Chinese company where one of the residents worked filed an FIR alleging that the building society was indulging in discrimination. In another serious turn of events, a resident was arrested on charges of manhandling a Chinese woman who was feeding stray dogs. Hajela says there were other minor altercations over issues such as restrictions on the entry of drivers and other service providers into the building.

Little wonder Hajela views his role as a thankless job. Irrespective of their educational levels and social status, residents bicker over issues big and small, he says.

Bharti Kukreja, a resident of Care Home Society, an apartment complex in Delhi’s Dwarka neighbourhood, says the disputes between residents and RWAs are in poor taste. “Dealing with the fear of rising infections is bad enough. Add to this, the government’s constantly changing rules and the thousands of messages with highly opinionated views and fragile egos, all of which have made community WhatsApp groups a battleground,” she rues.

While it’s true that RWAs were empowered to enforce social distancing norms to prevent the spread of the virus, with even government notifications recognising their role, it is equally true that quite a few of them overstepped their authority and began treating the apartment complexes like their fiefdoms. Some even disallowed newspaper delivery. To make matters worse, there were instances of vigilantes naming and shaming fellow residents for purported violations of lockdown and other norms.

The BBC had in a recent report described the RWAs as tinpot dictators, but Kukreja holds that many associations have done commendable work.

They may be autocratic and one-sided at times, but as modern-day panchayats, they have come to represent the ethos of the entire residential community, she says. During a crisis as unparalleled as the Covid-19 outbreak, many RWAs have emerged as reliable foot soldiers who keep themselves abreast with the latest developments, demystifying the often contradictory and confounding government directives while protecting the interests of the residential community. Several RWA members contacted for this story described their restrictions as ‘advisories’ rather than an imposition.

Set up as voluntary, legal associations registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, RWAs — whose office-bearers are usually elected by the residents — were never designed to have statutory power. As Bharat Kapoor, a practising lawyer of the Supreme Court and resident of Maharani Bagh, an upscale colony in South Delhi, puts it, “The present extraordinary situation would be a test of character for the RWAs, who need to develop a new understanding of their own role... (but) residents, too, need to shun their ‘us versus them’ approach”.

After all, it is thanks to sensible residents and RWAs that many of the gated communities are not seeing an explosion of cases. That, for now, should be reason enough to have faith in one another and not be at loggerheads as the country gradually unlocks itself for daily business.

Taru Bahl is a Gurugram-based freelance journalist who works in the social sector

Published on June 12, 2020
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