Why a Resident Welfare Association?

By Rao VBJ Chelikani 

Urban civil society organisations including RWAs have emerged as important players in governance and development of cities functioning as a fourth tier of grassroot self-governing micro-urban communities.  Howeverm we have a peculiar situation where parallel mechanisms formed by the state apparatus exist to deliver functions that these micro-communities are carrying out. Including a list of functions that can be devolved to these bodies in the 7th Schedule of the Constitution could be considered as a solution to this weakness. 

Political power does not flow like water from top to bottom; on the other hand, when it is captured and concentrated, it tends to stagnate and smell bad. It is a basic human reflex that whoever possesses power does not share it with others, unless and otherwise compelled to do so.

A cardinal democratic principle of subsidiarity is that whatever functions a lower body can fulfil, it need not be performed by a higher body. We fought pacifically for more than 30 years against the British to get power to govern ourselves in a semi-federal system. We took another 40 years to recognise the rural and urban local bodies as the third tier of our policy. But there is only recognition but no application. Whereas the distribution of power between the union and the state governments was done by the Constitution under the state list, the union list and the concurrent list, the transfer of power between the state government and the local self-governments is to be done by the state legislatures. Article 243W provides the devolution of 18 functions to the urban local bodies in the Twelfth Schedule of the Constitution.
A cardinal democratic principle of subsidiarity is that whatever functions a lower body can fulfil, it need not be performed by a higher body.

The National Finance Commission is entitled to take measures to augment the finances of the state government for supplementing the resources of the local bodies, it is to be done on the basis of the recommendations of the State Finance Commission. But, the state government or the ruling political party is always anxious to take up its own welfare schemes and use all the finances on them instead of sharing them with the local bodies. As a follow-up, the local MLAs, MLCs and the MPs intervene in the distribution of the benefits and use the district administrative machinery to dominate all the official decisions. The state departments are forming their own committees for developmental activities with other political activists which are not in the local bodies, as parallel committees. Hence, in order to remedy the present weakness, one solution that can be suggested is to add directly the present list of the functions to be devolved to the local bodies to the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, in which case they would become mandatory.

  1. Thus, the present level of decentralisation has not been functioning well, as the citizen is deprived of more active direct participation and the public funds are being spent with less transparency and accountability, resulting in inefficiency and wastage. Further, the experience of the developed countries shows that further decentralisation is necessary for better governance, inclusive growth and effective development. However, in the context of India, even if the there is expected decentralisation effectively, still many metropolitan cities, corporations and municipalities are bigger than several independent countries. The vast populations of lower, middle and higher middle classes in the towns and cities, who form already above 40% of Indian population are deprived of channels of direct participation in public affairs, except voting once in five years. With their educational, professional qualifications, experience and leisure, they can contribute much to society. As the polling in the urban areas is always low when compared to the massive vote banks that operate in the rural areas, incontestably, there is a rural bias in the governing political circles in the country. This is so in spite of the fact that four-fifths of the revenue for the governments come from the urban areas only. The urban civil society organisations are emerging as important players both in governance issues as well as in development activities. Further, in modern India, the urban space is the most propitious for the expression of new lifestyles and humanistic relations, ignoring castes and creeds. In order to uphold his inherent worth, dignity and self-respect, an urban resident is endowed with intensive communication technologies, fast transport and uninhibited relations and exchanges with other human beings. These are essential elements to build a knowledge-based, open and harmonious society. But, unfortunately, the urban citizens are under-represented in the governance in all the three tiers. In the rural areas, there is a Sarpanch for a few thousands of population and elected ward committee members for every two to three hundred people. Whereas in the urban areas, for example in Hyderabad there is a mayor for one crore population and one corporator for 75 thousand taxpayers. That is the reason why, an urban citizen is restless and explores ways and means to organise himself, spatially and socially at a still lower and closer level in the smaller size urban communities.

  2. Hence, there are inherent dangers in our democracy being very huge and unwieldy, without further effective decentralisation. Just as there is the distribution of powers between the union and the states, just as there is devolution of powers between the state and the local bodies, we need a fourth tier of grass-root self-governing micro-urban communities with participatory functions, in relation to the above three tiers. It will be not only a voting-citizen body but also a consumer-citizen body receiving services from not only from the above three tiers of government but also from the public and private sector undertakings.

A resident welfare association is essentially a group housing system in a layout spread over an area or built into floors of apartments in a building. Whether the houses are laid vertically or horizontally, these neighbourhood communities are registered under cooperative laws or as civil associations. They are entirely self-financed and self-managed.

Firstly, they work for the local area and infrastructure development, as pioneers regarding roads, lights, transport, drainage and drinking water. In many cases, they leave about 40% of their purchased land for common purposes and develop the area by bearing the initial costs. Later, they link up with the municipal services for waste management, local hygiene and sanitation and pay taxes and other developmental charges, not only as consumers or beneficiaries but also as stakeholders. The residents in the gated communities, on the other hand, cost nothing to the municipal body, as they pay for the installation of their infrastructure, and continue to pay for their maintenance. In Delhi, under the Bhagidari system, the state came forward to subsidise the local area development. Now, the RWAs in NOIDA function like small townships.

The RWAs participate in the municipal governance by constituting the ward committees along with other civil society organisations and by holding area Sabhas in each ward, which are meant of micro-planning, maintenance of local infrastructure, field coordination of the activities of different departments and for social audit. The effectiveness of this activity is conditioned by the availability of good cooperation from the local councillor or the corporator. Independent of such a status, all the officials and commissioners hold regular consultative meetings and seek their partnership in almost all campaigns and projects. The urban forestry, horticulture, greenery, rain harvesting pits and parks, all are promoted only in cooperation with the representatives of the RWAs. Now, in the cause of Swatch Bharat, they are adopting a 20-point Residents Charter on 23rd November in order to keep the environment clean and green.

Another growing segment of the urban population is the senior citizens, and among them, the retired government officials figured prominently in the laying of the early group housing schemes and in the forming of the cooperative societies in Delhi, Chennai, etc. In general, thanks to their large and active presence, the management of the resident welfare associations has been very often prudent and conservative in the good sense of the term. The growing number of senior citizens associations also closely work with the RWAs and make the community halls a vibrant platform for the community activities and civic responsibilities.

Secondly, they deal with the 1st and 2nd tier government department offices and institutions directly on matters of daily concern for their residents, like a police station, banks, hospitals, pension offices, schools, colleges, etc. In order to improve the quality of delivery of their services. Central and state Election Commissions, the Registrar General of the Census, etc. collaborate during their campaigns and make use of their community halls for carrying out their activities. Systematic Voter education programmes and Election Watch activities are carried out by the RWAs with great objectivity.

Thirdly, the RWAs deal with the other residents who are economic actors with shops, workshops and offices, including the professionals like, doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, etc. who provide goods and services. The RWA establish some kind of Community Pact in which both parties commit themselves to reconcile the individual interest with the collective interest. They observe the 1st July as the Doctors Day as a platform for dialogue between the residents and local healthcare personnel in order to reduce the medical expenditure and increase the access. In Hyderabad, it is in order to deal with the erratic TV cable operators that a few interested RWAs came together to form a federation. In order to fight against the air, water or sound pollutions affecting the health and serenity of the residents which are caused by the local establishments, the RWAs come together to deal with them effectively.

Fourthly, above all, the RWAs help form a micro-urban community of caring and sharing, resembling an extended joint family or tribal clan, and it remains the most important mission of the resident welfare association, as its name indicates appropriately. They might start as open plot societies, flat owners' associations, Tenants' societies or residents welfare associations or Housing Board societies. They are the primary schools of democracy since they are managed by a team of office-bearers like the president, secretary, treasurer, etc. who are elected regularly, who collect funds for investment and for maintenance of the common utilities. They are often called residential community private governments in the USA and they run small enterprises for the convenience of the local residents in China.

These urban, vertical agglomerations where people live in flats have developed a distinct ‘flat culture', whose origin lies in the Manhattan condominiums (condos) in New York. But, they have taken an extensive form in improving the quality of modern life in the residential towers in Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao and Teipe, etc. Mumbai and Kolkatta have been at the forefront of the management of the apartment buildings. Since the residents of these flats are educated, qualified and active young people, who take time off or employ their leisure to self-manage and to govern the area. A new urban cosmopolitan and humanist culture which respects and seeks cooperation from everybody in teamwork in the midst of the complexities of busy life. Our own distinct Indian model of ‘living together' in apartments, which is extensively studied and experimented in Hyderabad for the past two decades is reproducing the spirit of the joint family styles of living, which we had enjoyed in the rural context.
RWAs are the finest expression of urban civil society consensus and provide answers to many urban social problems, like insecurity, elderly solitariness, adolescent depressions, youth suicides, abuse of drug substances, eve-teasing, etc.

Still, there is a lot to do to promote a sense of solidarity and concern for the neighbour among the residents. The children are able to cultivate social skills and women are able to express their social solidarity towards other women. The elders obtain care, attention and security, driving their solitariness in the company of the families in the corridor. The flat culture is a new mechanism for social transformations. They are the finest expression of urban civil society consensus and provide answers to many urban social problems, like insecurity, elderly solitariness, adolescent depressions, youth suicides, abuse of drug substances, eve-teasing, etc. The slum improvement in the urban areas cannot be done by outside agencies, who would consider them as a separate world. They have to be linked to the adjacent RWAs since they live side by side, inter-dependent. By definition, the slum-dwellers are not poor, but they have poor living conditions. Working with the residents in the RWAs, they would easily pick up the same middle-class lifestyles.

Finally, there is no better advocate of the role of the RWAs than the Union Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, Mr. Hardeep Singh Puri, who in his inaugural speech at the 5th National conference of the RWAs in Visakhapatnam said that he would put a proposal to his ministry to consider granting constitutional status to RWAs similar to that of the local self-government.

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  1. Letters to Editor:
    Mutual cooperation between SCAs and RWAs

    Dear Sir,
    I write this e-mail in all humility to express my happiness at the Mutual Cooperation between SCAs and RWAs, so lucidly explained and emphasised by Dr. Rao in his article. He has aptly quoted the unanimous resolution of the 13th National Conference of All-India Senior Citizens Confederation at Lucknow: "That all the Senior Citizens Associations [SCAs] should get involved and participate in the activities of the nearby Resident Welfare Associations [RWAs] who are coming up as the finest expressions of the civil society and as an answer to many urban problems, in a way that would enhance the image of the senior citizens in the society and command respect from the younger generation, adminstrators, and politicians too".:
    Dr. Rao in his article has given examples of mutual cooperation . But, in the examples given, there is no specific mention of PFCF, but it is understood that any "welfare" activity, and footpaths-for-pedestrians is one such, can become an act of collaboration between SCAs and RWAs. Dr. Rao in his book RWA - A 4th Tier of Governance .describes commitment of UFERWAS at #8, page 187, as follows: "Identify, inventorise, and protect public properties and prevent their misuse and encroachments".
    What I am referring to is the application of Dr. Rao's concept of RWAs as a 4th Tier of Governance and their commitment described in his book at p. 187 and quoted at #3 above. I am referring to role of RWAs and SCAs in spreading welfare message/ activities. Keeping pavements in front of our houses/ buildings encroachment-free is mandatory.

    RWAs and SCAs have to take care of their areas of activity. He has beautifully unfolded the role of RWAs and SCAs [see quote at #2 above). This e-mail does not give a blue-print of the methodology to achieve the end results; it has necessarily to be broadly worked out by UFERWAS and AISCCON.


    Professor B. R. Sant,
    Retired Scientist,
    Block B, Flat No. 111,
    Saket Pranaam,
    Kapra, Hyderabad 500103,
    e-mail: brsant@rediffmail.com
    Cell: 08790182330, Landline 040 27120542