The reign of RWAs: They know what you do every day
What happens when you offer an unmarried foreign friend coming to India a place to stay in your house while she/he is in the country? Well, if you too are single and of the opposite sex and living in an apartment block in an Indian city, your friend might just find that she is without a place to stay. And you are left to fight or placate – as you choose – the enraged morality of your neighbourhood RWA (Resident Welfare Association) members. As Mohit Agarwal and his Spanish friend Carlota Burrel Mars found out the hard way last month.
A resident of an apartment complex in Gurgaon in the National Capital Region (NCR), Agarwal was told that according to RWA policies, his friend couldn’t stay with him since they were both single and of the opposite sex. After intervention from Agarwal’s landlord, Mars was allowed to stay with him for a day or two, after which she had to make alternate arrangements for herself. “There is another weird thing I have noticed. Most gated societies have security personnel at the entrance who note down the names of any visitors. But here, there are separate columns for male and female visitors,” says Agarwal. “Also, till recently two-wheelers were not allowed inside the colony. Even residents have to park their two-wheelers outside.”
Agarwal is the not the only one in that colony to have run foul of the RWA rules.
No pets/kids in garden
Twenty-six-year-old investment banker, Mayank Sharma, who moved into the same colony as Agarwal a little over a month ago, has already had several run-ins with the RWA. “A week after I moved in, I was walking my dog in the garden. There were also a few kids playing there. A guard came and first stopped the kids from playing. He said children were not allowed to play in the garden. He then approached me and told me that pets were not allowed in the park,” says Sharma.
When Sharma requested to be shown the rulebook, he was told that it was with the manager. “When I went to the manager, I was first told that the rulebook is given to the house owner. But when I checked with my landlord I was told that he didn’t have one either. The manager said there was no written record, and that the rules are communicated to him verbally by the president from time to time,” says Sharma, adding, “Another thing I don’t understand is that why, in most societies, house owers are the ones who have a say in RWA decisions. The RWA is a residents body and even if anyone is staying as a tenant, he should be consulted.”
A bachelor, he too has faced the “no female visitors” mandate. “The office cab comes in the morning to pick me up. There are usually two of my women colleagues in the car at the time. The guards questioned them so often about why they were coming to my flat that they requested me to meet the cab outside the gate,” he says.
After the media attention that his case received, Agarwal feels the RWA rules in his colony have been somewhat relaxed. However, these are not isolated incidences. As space crunch and the need for security and modern living amenities transform urban landscapes from predominantly stand-alone houses to more apartment blocks and gated housing societies, Resident Welfare Associations are formed as representative bodies to handle everyday concerns such as security, sanitation, power and water supply, or to interact with the authorities on behalf of the residents. But many residents feel that too often, the association formed to ensure their comfort, ends up framing rules that are against their interests.
Where might is right
Take, for example, the case of Karan Aggarwal. Thirty-eight year old Aggarwal moved to a flat in a gated housing complex in New Delhi’s Dwarka area three months back, and is now eagerly waiting for his year-long rental agreement with his landlord to lapse, so that he can move to a new place. “Even if I am getting a cable television or Internet connection installed, I need to tell them and get their prior permission,” says Karan.
From deciding the use of public spaces within the society to what to eat, whom to rent to or when to entertain within one’s house, nothing seems to be beyond the mandate of the RWA. As sociologist Shiv Visvanathan says, “Gated housing societies are autocratic communities, where the power lies in the hands of a few people and they run it like their personal empire. Those not within the immediate core group have to follow the decisions of the powerful few,” he says. “It is as if the gated colony has seceded from the rest of the society and the core group can legislate within that area.”
As per a Delhi High Court order, gates to residential colonies cannot be closed during the day. If they have to be shut at night (between 11pm to 5am), RWAs are required to post guards there so that no inconvenience is caused to people who want to visit somebody in the area. But many complexes with multiple entry and exit points, keep one or more of the gates closed through the day, and often without posting anyone there to open the gate in case of an emergency. A resident of Delhi’s upmarket Hauz Khas area who doesn’t want to be named remembers when she returned late from work one night, she was told by the guards at the gate that her car couldn’t enter the colony. “I was told that the RWA president had ordered that no cars could enter the complex post midnight. Apparently the decision was taken to discourage young students who stay on rent in the colony to receive friends beyond a certain hour. When I confronted him he quickly backtracked and said the rule didn’t apply to residents,” she says.
The force behind RWAs
While RWAs are registered and function under different laws in different states, their designated roles are by and large similar. “The RWA raises funds from residents for services such as security, cleaning the neighbourhood etc,” explains Ashok Bhasin, president of the federation of RWAs in North Delhi. “It also intervenes with the authorities on behalf of the residents to ensure proper water and power supply. For local civic bodies and the police, the RWAs are the first point of contact in a neighbourhood and they are the ones they will approach in case of a dispute, or if there is health camp or other such programme in the neighbourhood.”
In Delhi, the state government had announced the Bhagidari scheme in 1998 to encourage people’s participation in daily administrative issues. RWAs were among the bodies, along with other citizens associations, such as market and traders associations, which were involved in the scheme . As in this case, elsewhere too, the close contact with the authorities often translates into a sense of power for the RWA members and office bearers. Also, often governments, especially at the local level, are wary of displeasing RWAs, because as Bhasin explains, “RWAs have a certain say in their neighbourhood and can impact the vote sway in favour of or against a party”.
Thus, though in theory, RWAs “can’t make rules of body or food”, as Shiv Visvanathan puts it, those at the receiving end of conservative RWA policies have a different story to tell.
Watch what you eat
Sarthak Sharma, a 23-year-old techie living in the suburb of Andheri, came to Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh nine months back, and has already run afoul of the unspoken rules used by housing societies to ‘keep tenants in check’. Sharma shares a one-bedroom flat with four other young men. Last month, the building’s cooperative housing society asked them to leave, because they “had been caught eating non-vegetarian food, which is not allowed in the housing complex”.
“They’re saying they have a picture of our dustbin with non-veg food in it,” says Sharma. “But this is not true. We have never brought non-veg food to the complex. We were not shown the picture... it seems to be of a pizza box, but it was a veg pizza.” He adds, “We’ve never broken any of their rules. We don’t eat meat at home; don’t have parties here. Even our landlord is happy with our conduct, but the decision has been taken by the society.”
Aditya Subramaniam, a 28-year-old software engineer living in Chennai, has also lived with the “no non-vegetarian” rule. “The restriction wasn’t a big issue for me, but I do wonder if it was a subtler way of discriminating against communities who do eat meat – the association members were all Brahmins,” he says. (Many cities have colonies where RWAs discriminate on the basis of religion, caste or race.)
The rules seem to be especially unfriendly towards singles – even those who are married, but away from their families. Rupesh Kumar, a medical representative and native of Khagaria in Bihar, now living in Kolkata, remembers what a harrowing time he had in Patna 10 months back. “The first question every flat owner would ask me was whether I was married. I was also told not to live alone and to get my family to stay with me,” says the father of two.
Mumbai resident Ravi Dhoot, a 26-year-old management executive, shifted into a flat with three other friends six months ago. Last month, he and his flatmates were told to move out. The housing society has decided they won’t allow bachelors as tenants. Like Sharma, Dhoot says that it is not his landlord but the housing society that has ‘objected’ to their marital status.
The experience of the people seem to be in stark contrast to the claims made by RWAs. In Lucknow, for example, most RWAs claim not to interfere in the decision of house owners when it comes to choosing tenants. The only thing which they say they recommend is to get the identity of the tenants verified from the nearest police station. “What if my son goes to Mumbai or Delhi and is denied a room because he is a young boy? I don’t think refusal on such grounds is justified,” says Shyam Bahadur Singh Lahiri, president of the Nehru Enclave RWA in Lucknow.
According to Mumbai-based real-estate lawyer Vinod Sampat,by law, housing societies have no authority to deny accommodation and discriminate on the basis of dietary preferences, type of employment or marital status. “It is a case of the majority ganging up against one or two people,” he says. “It is illegal, but they get away with it because few tenants want to spend years trying to fight it out as per the law.”
Giving it back
The solution might lie in greater involvement of the residents in the functioning of their respective RWAs. But the average working professional often has little time for it. “We hardly keep track of when the RWA election is held or who are the members or office bearers. The RWA only becomes relevant to us when there is a problem with the electricity bill, or some such issue. Therefore, if one tries to voice one’s problem against any RWA rule, the office bearers may question why nothing was said when the rule was being formed,” says Gurgaon resident Niranjan Singh Manohar.
The other option, the one given by Visvanathan, needs the involvement of the authorities. “There should be an RTI kind of system even for the societies. Rules should be transparent and examined by the law and order authorities. Make a lesson of one or two of those found to be imposing baseless rules on residents. Impose a heavy fine on them,” he says. The clipping of the RWA’s wings by the authorities though, might depend on its political colour and whether it matches those of the party in power. In Delhi, for example, Bhasin says, the passing of the reins from the Sheila Dikshit government to the Aam Aadmi Party, had resulted in the Bhagidari scheme taking a backseat “RWAs were not invited to meetings by the local officers.” But with the next election closer, Bhasin says, the meetings have started again. “Perhaps they too realise that the RWAs can influence the opinion of the locals in their favour,” he says.