There is a joke circulating on social media that right now in India, as we battle COVID-19 pandemic, there are three people who are most powerful — the prime minister, the state’s chief minister and the secretary of the apartment complex.
This can’t be more true, with resident welfare associations (RWAs) stepping up to play the role of responsible watch bodies, while some have clearly been overstepping boundaries.
In several residential societies in Hyderabad and Secunderabad, residents have been threatened to ‘name and shame’ if they ‘dare’ to take a stroll in the compound as rules did not permit.
Some have issued advisories against newspaper and pizza deliveries. Others have put limits to walks, allowing only a 15-minute ‘walk’ for pets and banned the entry of maids and all house helps.
Ban on outsiders and restricted movement
“An uncle of mine who is a heart patient was hospitalised in mid-March. Following his discharge from the hospital in the middle of the lockdown period, he came to stay with us because he is alone. The Society (RWA) people are objecting to this. What should I do? How can you be so insensitive?” asked Santosh Kumar, a resident of an apartment complex in the upmarket Himayatnagar area in Hyderabad.
In one of the apartment complexes in Valasaravakkam in Chennai, association members had objected to residents moving out of flats in one particular block, after one of the residents tested positive.
A resident, Naveen Kumar Sathya, pointed out that the Greater Chennai Corporation officials had only sealed the flat where the case was diagnosed.
“Yet, the resident association there restricted the total movement of everyone in that block. They also claimed that the officials told them to ensure that no one moved out,” he added.
Similarly, in complexes in areas like Nandanam in the same city, many have asked people who ventured out not to return.
“I can’t work from home due to the nature of my job. So, I am going to the office every day, but I was shocked when some from the RWA governing body asked me to consider staying elsewhere if I continued being in and out of the complex. I had to reason out with them saying it was impossible,” said a resident on the condition of anonymity.
Ban on all and sundry
At many residential societies, there is a complete ban on the entry of maids, house helps, drivers, dhobis, car cleaners, plumbers, and electricians who do not stay within the RWA premises.
“My father is a paralysis patient who needs regular physiotherapy sessions. We had engaged a male nurse from one of the home care service agencies for daily visits. But, our association office bearers wanted a complete ban on entry of outsiders. With a lot of difficulty, I managed to convince them,” said N Rahul, a resident of an apartment complex in Santhosh Nagar in Hyderabad, which has 560 flats.
The list of “Dos and Don’ts” shared by various RWAs among their residents has been growing since March 25 when nationwide lockdown came into effect. This is leading to confusion, with some questioning the legal authority of the RWAs to pass orders on what is permitted during the lockdown and what is not.
Some RWAs have imposed restrictions on the usage of elevators. Only two persons from the same family will be allowed at a time in a passenger lift. In case of an emergency, four may be allowed. They also make it clear that milk packets, newspapers can be delivered out of the building lobby and that the residents would need to collect it themselves.
“I have a sense that the RWAs have been trying to exercise arbitrary powers in the name of taking care of the welfare of the residents,” lamented S Ramakrishna, a research scholar at the Osmania University who is the resident of a gated community project close to the campus.
Problems arise when certain things are not defined in the rules and regulations. “It is in those cases that the district administration leaves it to the wisdom of RWAs to take a decision. The authorities often simply lay down some broad guidelines and then leave it to the RWAs, democratically elected by residents themselves, to decide what is best for the society. While the intent of the RWAs in most cases is to ensure the welfare of residents, in many cases they often cross the line,” said A Srinivasa Rao, a senior public relations professional.
RWAs just being responsible
On the other end of the spectrum, some residents, out of fear of being harassed or becoming targets of unwarranted attention, prefer to hide the details of travel history or health conditions of their family members.
“In the initial stage of the lockdown period, my daughter had returned home from Italy by a special flight arranged by the government for the benefit of stranded Indian students.
After thermal screening at the airport, she was advised self-isolation at home. We chose not to inform the association members about it,” said Sandhya Rani, a banking executive in Hyderabad.
Resident welfare associations across have been putting the best interests of its residents and their safety first, points out Harsha Koda, coordinator, Federation of OMR Residents Associations (FOMRRA) in Chennai.
“We have a family returning from Vijayawada after availing e-passes tomorrow at our complex. Once they return, the family of five will be in quarantine for 14 days and they will be helped to get groceries and vegetables by their neighbours in the complex so that they do not have to step out,” he said.
He added that the residents have cooperated by adhering to the guidelines, even as there have been a few cases of some seeking exceptions like being allowed to use the terrace for taking a walk at a particular time in the evening.
Some like the association in the locality of Adyar, like the Federation of Adyar Residents’ Associations (FEDERA), have ensured that there is no floating group of residents and have insisted that relatives assisting elderly residents who are staying alone and house help stay back rather than being in and out of the apartments.
C Ramakrishnan, secretary, FEDERA, said, “The residents have been fairly accepting of these rules and we have also made exceptions for those who need to do urgent chores outside or have to bring in outside people in their apartments for rituals.”
A few like the association by residents of Mantri Synergy in Padur, Chennai have been able to manage their chores and routine by ensuring that a set of staff stay within the complex for plumbing, electrical repairs, etc
S.R. Jayasankar, president, Mantri Synergy Owners Association, Padur, said, “A special volunteer team of about 12-15 individuals has been created to help all vulnerable or senior citizens among the 765 apartments in the gated community with any assistance during the lockdown period.”
He said while they allowed help coming from nearby areas after a few days, they had to stop it again after a few cases were reported in the area they reside in nearby.
Fundamental rights trump RWA rules
The RWAs cannot impose stricter rules that violate personal freedom, observes Sudha Ramalingam, advocate, Madras High Court. She said that most of the associations are registered under the Trust Act or The Society Registration Act, while the smaller ones are not registered under either of them.
“These are private bodies and their rules cannot be against natural justice or constitutional safeguards. For example, the right to livelihood or right to life have been guaranteed to us by the constitution. In this bid, going for a walk or jog cannot be stopped by someone,” she added.
Richardson Wilson, an advocate at the MHC, pointed out that not letting someone get in or out of the property with extra restrictions, superseding the government’s rules ingresses on property rights.
“When it comes to COVID-19, there are restrictions imposed under the Epidemics diseases Act and Tamil Nadu Covid-19 guidelines. You cannot have RWA curtailing the rights of others, superseding the government. RWAs are there to coordinate on collection of maintenance and even when they sign the sale deed, there is no clause in it that gives them a right to act like police,” he said.