Coronavirus outbreak has brought to fore the tyranny of Delhi's self-aggrandising resident welfare associations

With the countrywide lockdown ending its first week, there have been signs of encouragement as well as warning signs. There have been instances of delinquent behaviour, including instances of people escaping quarantine to mingle with the populace. But mercifully, the vast majority of people have comprehended the urgent necessity to comply for their own good and for the good of others.

When necessary, the State must enforce compliance. What cannot, or should not, be the model is one that involves neighbours snitching or organisations like residents’ societies or welfare associations getting into the act. The lockdown must bring people together for a common purpose, not divide nor put power into the hands of self-proclaimed guardians.

Some unconfirmed speculation has it that Delhi’s residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) could be drafted into the policing exercise as eyes and ears. The thinking could be that they might be able to help track people breaking lockdown regulations. The fairly obvious flaw in this kind of reasoning is that such bodies, or nosy neighbours, will never be in a position to know why a ‘delinquent’ resident has stepped out of home. It could be to buy medicines, tend to a sick relative or it could be to have a party halfway across town. That will, anyway, have to be ascertained by an inquiry – by the police.

 Coronavirus outbreak has brought to fore the tyranny of Delhis self-aggrandising resident welfare associations

Representational image. PTI

For about a quarter of a century, RWAs in the National Capital have arrogated for themselves a host of powers that cannot by any means be constituted as legitimate. Sometime at the turn of the century, RWAs in Delhi started installing massive iron gates to block access to public thoroughfares. They would be opened by security personnel early in the morning and be shut sometime at night – say around midnight.

The thing to note is that the RWAs were blocking public roads without even a smidgeon of any kind of legal authority, citing the ‘security’ of residents. So, for instance, if you had to go through Defence Colony on your way from somewhere to elsewhere, you’d be confronted by a massive gate and then have to go through the ordeal of convincing security personnel to let you pass. I don’t suppose it needs to be stressed over much that it’s the job of the state to provide security and people are not allowed to privatise public space in their quest for a gated existence.

But there were no widespread protests, the government did not seem to have a problem with this encroachment on their authority and in time these gates became a ubiquitous part of the landscape of the city. This obviously had consequences for the way these ‘gated communities’ related to the rest of the city. At the very least, it can be posited that the usurpation of public spaces for personal consumption fuelled the tensions, already acute, that are characteristic of Delhi, not least because of the extreme degrees of inequality it harbours and the particular profile of Delhi as a city of migrants.

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That is the ‘us-versus-them’ part. But as with every ‘us’ in such equations, the ‘us’ were not some kind of fabled community living in perfect harmony. The ‘us’ within the gates were divided along any number of lines. Thus, the aggrandisement of the RWAs played into these divisions, as they had to. Any standard Sociology 101 course would tell us that. For instance, Delhi being a city  of migrants, most of these gated gardens of Eden harboured within them a large number of people living as, usually, short-term tenants. Typically, they would be of the younger generation with lifestyles and, in the broad sense, ideologies that were not in consonance with those of the people ‘normally’ resident in the area – the property owners, in other words.

When these clashes of outlooks happened, it was the RWA, the mouthpiece, obviously, of the property-owners, which would step in to resolve ‘disputes’. So, in neighbourhood after neighbourhood, RWAs became the moral arbiters of what was right and acceptable and what was not allowed. Thus, young people looking for accommodation in Delhi were confronted by RWA rules about many aspects of daily life: what you could eat; by what hour you had to return home; and who could or could not visit you. Perhaps it was the person renting out the property who’d make the rules, but they were underwritten by the power of the RWAs.

Over time, the jurisdiction of the RWAs has expanded significantly in many parts of Delhi: they have arrogated for themselves the power to vet tenancies; control the use of parks and other vacant spaces in their ‘territories’; decide on who can and cannot carry out a business (selling vegetables, pressing clothes) at what designated spot. They frame the rules for ownership of pets and how they must be handled. RWAs can also regulate how celebrations like Diwali and Holi must be performed. And, perhaps less often, RWAs adjudicate on disputes between neighbours or even within families.

In other words, RWAs have become a form of an arbitrary and tyrannous urban panchayat, though, unlike actual panchayats, they have no powers in law. They are, in fact, not even in any meaningful sense, the ‘representatives’ of the ‘residents’ whose ‘welfare’ they are supposed to promote, going by nomenclature.

It is into such a situation — created by this seizure of civic, social and, indeed, political and economic, power by one group of people at the expense of a larger group — that the question of playing a role in maintaining the lockdown plays. If RWAs were to arrogate for themselves a role, it could end up institutionalising and legitimising a power grab in a way that would be most unfortunately invasive and at a time when fraternal citizenship and its partnership with the state is most necessary.

It would be kind of nice to imagine that though the authorities are monitoring our actions, they are doing it for our individual welfare and for the welfare of larger groups. It would be nicer to know that it is the government itself that is doing it openly to protect all citizens rather than allowing to flourish an existing and odious system of sub-contracting.​

Updated Date: Mar 31, 2020 18:27:04 IST



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