RWA Management During the Lockdown

By Rao VBJ Chelikani 

Society leaders at the 4th Tier of Governance should avoid the temptation to don the mantle of dictatorial control and rather choose expressions of ‘soft power’ by persuading and convincing people 

Are the Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) becoming unpopular?

Before we reflect upon it, we have to register certain facts and events that confirm the phenomenon of RWAs as the undisputed representatives of urban micro-communities. No authority can ignore them anymore. No order of the government or the courts or media report is complete without mentioning the RWAs in civic governance or community development.

The unquestionable proof is provided by the manner in which they have displayed utmost concern and organization during the four phases of the lockdown on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. The municipal, state and central departmental personnel have been too small in number and are unprepared for assuming all the tasks that the political authorities at the higher level have been claiming to be doing, true to their political mandate.

Due Recognition
Though due recognition is not given, it is, in fact, the civil society organisations, foundations, social activists, volunteers and philanthropic individuals that have owned and carried out multiple activities in the field spontaneously. To some extent, a sample of the variety of activities that are undertaken by them is cited with names, places and dates in the last two editions of the Tarnaka Times, which is a national chronicle of the civil society life in the country. The media, written and visual, could capture only glimpses of this activity, that too only on occasions when local authorities, looking for a photo opportunity, were at hand to give out food packets or to receive cheques from the donors, etc. Most often those who actually paid for the rations, cooked, packed and delivered the meals, went unacknowledged.

While most RWAs have procured sanitizer-stands, set up thermal screening and distributed masks at the entrance to their complexes, some modest associations at the very outset had improvised with a bucket of water and a bar of soap for everybody to wash their legs and hands before entering the building.

Secondly, even though municipal authorities have missed the opportunity to work with RWAs in the framework of the Ward Committees, which have not been effectively constituted as originally intended in partnership with the RWAs, during the current emergency, they have found only the RWAs and voluntary organisations cooperating with them effectively in the field. Further, with regard the movement of people from and to the apartment buildings and the colonies, the Principal Secretary of the Municipal Administration and Urban Development. Telangana issued a circular recognising the management of the RWA as the only body competent to decide upon.

Media Attention
On this first time experience of governance during an emergency at the fourth tier i.e. at the level of the urban communities for around 70 days, the media, including the BBC found many comments to make on the styles of their functioning. However, the BBC, at the outset describes them positively. "Commonly known as the RWAs, these associations are a unique feature of Indian urban living. They are responsible for managing the day-to-day affairs of specific residential areas and generally set guidelines - relating to issues like security - for people to follow. Its members are elected by those living in a housing society or a neighbourhood”.

Rightly so! The RWAs have as their sole mission, whether during the pandemic or during the normal times, the welfare of the residents, whether they are in an area or a block of flats. Their concern is for the collective and general welfare of all the residents, and, at the same time, also the specific and particular welfare of each and every individual resident member. Besides, during the emergency, they have to attend to the needs of those who are more vulnerable, such as the elderly, those with co-morbidities, the house-wives who cannot handle all the household chores and young children. Because of the general objectives for which it is registered as an association, and under the Common Law, it cannot discriminate against the tenants in favour of the owners as far as general welfare matters are concerned. As a corollary, since the welfare of the residents depends upon the outsiders to the building, the welfare and the rights and interests of those who come into the colony to offer or to take the services and goods from the residents, also becomes the concern of the RWA managers.

However, in this context, some of the decisions taken by some of the RWAs gave rise to many protests and criticism, pointing out that they have not sufficiently taken note of some special needs of their own residents as well as the livelihood concerns of the outsiders. The Indian press has quoted extensively some aggrieved residents who have been very vocal and vociferous. Geetha Pandey of BBC News quotes them: “The 'tinpot' RWA dictators running life in India's cities.” They are accused of overreach in their anxiety to ensure the safety of the residents. They are credited to have acted as "little Hitlers" and "tinpot dictators”, "vigilante RWAs.” “Villa managers go overboard”seeking to cocoon themselves fearing the marauding Coronavirus is the comment of another journalist, KS Dakshina Murthy writing in The Federal. “Apartments and gated communities cannot be mini-republics which have their own constitutions and laws that run counter to the country’s constitutional framework”.

Though everybody admits they have the responsibility to organise and regulate the life of the residents under their charge, as per their society bylaws, nevertheless, it is said the managing committee cannot arrogate to itself legal rights that do not belong to them.

Though everybody admits they have the responsibility to organise and regulate the life of the residents under their charge, as per their society bylaws, nevertheless, it is said the managing committee cannot arrogate to itself legal rights that do not belong to them.

Many RWAs reportedly issued lists of dos and don'ts which run into several pages and some of their diktats have been so arbitrary that governments have had to step in to rein them in. According to the columnist Vir Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times newspaper, "Some might have indeed behaved like small-time dictators, inventing their own rules, even ignoring government regulations when they regard them as too liberal.” Some won't allow delivery men. Others will throw out newspaper hawkers and so on. It may be a great democracy outside but within the colonies, it is often a dictatorship of pygmies, "Among the issues, the biggest bone of contention in most apartment complexes and neighbourhoods has been over whether to allow the part-time domestic helpers in or not, along with essential workers like plumbers, electricians, and gardeners, cooks, e-commerce staff, etc. Even invited by some of the residents, the workers have been shut out and found in front of their "locked gates and barricades." Where allowed, they have been put to many inconveniences, discomfort and even humiliations, since the decisions were to be taken by a few, on the spot and spontaneously without much time for consultations among all the office-bearers. With the fear of not being able to persuade the residents to wear masks and to keep physical distance, some RWAs have obstructed to the holding of weekly markets in their places, thereby hurting many livelihoods and putting some elderly and other residents into inconvenience. After all, most of these apartments and gated communities are inhabited by well-educated and responsible individuals in key positions in society.

The RWA should remain an essential institution as a school of democracy at the community level and act according to the refined consensus that emerges out of their frequent mutual consultations among the residents.

Sometimes matters came to a head and the police have had to intervene to sort out issues. The problem appears aggravated in the gated communities where affluent and higher middle classes reside with private security guards, while the staff often comes from cramped colonies where social distancing is often not possible. It is also natural that many workers were eager to go to work and earn money for their day to day life. At times, the media showed the nurses and doctors being harassed by the same people who on March 22 made a song and dance to applaud the medical community for their selfless service to the nation. It is also true that in some cases the problem has been so severe that the government has had to step in and issue orders to take legal action against those attempting to evict medical professionals from their premises. The Indian Express, The Times of India and some regional newspapers also carried the cases of some aberrations and other instances of indifference on the part of the RWAs.

On the other hand, it is also pertinent to mention that at no stage through the past 70 days have the RWAs been consulted, as stated by the New Delhi RWAs in a letter to the Delhi Government expressing their displeasure over a government order asking them to allow movement of the public. They claimed that they have been a vital link in maintaining order and services during the lockdown. The RWAs took it upon themselves to restrict movement, raise funds to supply rations to stranded migrants, coordinated to distribute the food packets, took care of senior citizens, ensured security to residents, and fed stray animals & birds. So much so, unwilling to recognise this reality, the Mayor of the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation had even announced that the passes given to NGOs would be suspended and that any food prepared by them should be placed at the GHMC counters, from where the GHMC staff would distribute to the needy. Fortunately, this order had not been given effect.

What is seriously worrisome in all this is that these decisions and actions which are no doubt not very prevalent could set a bad precedent and in future could extend to spying on the neighbours and other civilians to report their activities to authorities. The police and other officers might even collaborate actively so that their political leadership could enhance their image of being a 'strong' government. Already, we have been condoning many violations of civil liberties by the governments, hoping that it would be during the emergency and for a short period. However, prolonged emergencies will lead to ‘authoritarian’ governments.

Social leaders of the 4th tier of governance should avoid this kind of temptation, and should rather choose expressions of ‘soft power’ of persuading and convincing people, rather than trying to impose their power. The ‘mental trauma’ caused due to the emergency declared by the government in 1975 is still very vivid in our minds. The RWA should remain an essential institution as a school of democracy at the community level and act according to the refined consensus that emerges out of their frequent mutual consultations among the residents.

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