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India’s Urban Residents’ Welfare Associations Have Become Especially Dictatorial and Classist in the Lockdown

“After I got home to help my parents out, some 30 residents gathered outside demanding me to go back to "my home" because I'm married and now, apparently, the home I grew up in is no longer mine.”
02 June 2020, 10:37am
india housing RWA classist
Photo by Zuarav from Pexels

As the lockdown starts opening up in phases, life is slowly moving towards a new normal. But for urban middle-class housing neighbourhoods, this comes with a dash of dictatorship and classism, courtesy the RWAs. Resident Welfare Associations, commonly known as the RWAs, and cooperative housing societies (CHS) see an elected group of people responsible for managing the daily affairs of residential areas—like societies and colonies—and setting guidelines relating to issues like security and cleanliness for their residents to follow.

Having an RWA in a colony is essential, as the body takes care of internal matters of the neighbourhood or society, and helps everyone in it live harmoniously. Except, in the lockdown days, it seems like several RWAs have been more harmful than helpful. Many are being accused of laying out too many rules, even on issues that don’t fall under their domain. Many have also been accused of harassing essential workers like doctors, nurses, and airline crew members living in their premises. Many have issued an elaborate list of dos and don'ts which often serves little purpose—apart from restricting movement arbitrarily—although done under the misplaced morality of acting in the interest of everyone's safety.

“On Twitter, people have regularly complained about the men (and it is nearly always men) who run RWAs saying they are usually retired bureaucrats, who now look for new ways to seem powerful,” writes columnist Vir Sanghvi in Hindustan Times. “I haven’t surveyed so I don’t know the background of all of these men but yes, it is true that some have behaved like small-time dictators, inventing their own rules, even ignoring government regulations when they regard them as too liberal.” He went on to say, “These are bodies that often do good work (my RWA has done some commendable things) but which, all too often, fall into the hands of little Hitlers.”

The biggest issue of contention for RWAs has been on the return of domestic help and essential workers like plumbers, electricians, and gardeners. In many cases, the workers have been shut out and seen as carriers of the virus because the affluent and the middle-class live in gated neighbourhoods with private security guards, while the staff often comes from cramped colonies where social distancing is often not possible. Workers have spoken about how they’ve wanted to return so they could get paid and not lose their jobs, but many RWAs have been reluctant to let them in because of their apprehensions about the domestic workers carrying the COVID-19 virus.

Anandi, who lives in southwest Delhi, is one of the many living in housing societies which have made rules independent of the government’s, continuing to forbid house help from working in houses in their neighbourhood. “My husband and I are somehow managing, and we have been paying them (their house help) regularly,” Anandi told VICE. “I am in touch with my help who tells me some of my neighbours absolutely refuse to pay the workers because they "have not done any work in the past two months" and are treating her with suspicion and in some cases, even revulsion. It is already hard for her and her family to manage through the pandemic with this added insult. There isn’t any reason for these people to be so inhumane towards people who’ve been working for them for years”

For the housing societies which are allowing the entry of other people, the entry of domestic help and workers often means additional—and stricter—guidelines. To begin with, the RWAs have started collecting all the details of those workers whom residents want to continue using the services of.

For a society in Gurgaon, domestic workers were divided into two batches—supposed to work on alternate days—with their entry only allowed once a day “to avoid overcrowding” in common spaces, as reported in The Indian Express. For drivers, residents were asked to call them in a way that ensures “free time available between trips is minimised”. While most RWAs are only advising their workers to get tested, one RWA used a circular informing residents: “All maids, drivers, gardeners, basement laundrymen, and car cleaners will have to undergo the basic CBC blood test before starting work and then as per doctor’s advice, the cost of which will be borne by residents.” When a doctor pointed out that a CBC test is unrelated to COVID-19, a member of the housing complex management insisted this was to rule out any infection which could lower their immunity. “One of our doctor residents suggested this. It has nothing to do with coronavirus,” he said.

The Indian Express reported that another society in Gurgaon has gone a step further and directed its residents to accompany the domestic workers from the lobby to the flats and back “so that the maid doesn’t touch the lift buttons”. A woman also told the BBC that her RWA had issued a ridiculous guideline which asks everyone to "walk only in clockwise direction" in her apartment complex, and anyone walking anti-clockwise would be fined ₹ 500 ($7).

Indians have always complained about ‘nosy neighbours’ and ‘watchful aunties’ so obviously, now, in a time of utmost wariness, it is not just the associations that are going overboard, but also some residents who have started treating neighbours with suspicion and insisting on imposing draconian rules. "My parents live in a massive tower with two wings in Andheri in Mumbai, and I live in Sion," says Jainee Mehta who works with a bank, to VICE. "They have rules like people should stand facing the elevator walls while inside it and if sharing with someone else, and newspaper vendors and maids are still not allowed in—which is fine. But last week, my diabetic father was feeling unwell and the housework was getting too much for my mom, so I decided to go live with them for a few weeks. But after I got home, some 30 residents gathered outside our house demanding me to go back to "my home" because I'm married and now, apparently, the home I grew up in is no longer mine. We were even all ready to stay indoors for 14 days but everyone started getting angry. I finally threatened to call the cops, which sucks because these were the very people I've grown up around and loved."

In their defence, the RWAs say the restrictions are meant to protect the residents themselves from the pandemic. ”No order of the government and various courts or media reports is without the mention of RWA’s role in civic governance or espousing public cause. It is pertinent to mention that at no stage through the past 45 days have RWAs been consulted,” said the RWAs in a letter to the Delhi government expressing their displeasure over a government order asking them to allow movement. The RWAs added they were a ‘vital link’ in maintaining order and services during the lockdown “RWAs took it upon themselves to restrict movement, raise funds to supply rations to stranded migrants, coordinated to distribute food packets, took care of senior citizens, ensured security to residents, fed stray animals & birds.” But because of the power given to RWAs through society bylaws, societies can choose how they want to organise and regulate (same reason why some allow pets but some don’t). And in a scenario such as this pandemic, it’s these “little Hitlers” who often win.

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