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Those are heavy words for something that has welfare in its name, right?
Well, there are reasons. The openly discriminatory systems that are a brainchild of all Resident Welfare Associations in India, are rarely talked about despite their impact. The trend is such that these associations are intolerant to the unmarried young working class, students, single women, animal lovers, animals and basically anyone they CAN oppress.
If “I can and I will” had to be explained in an example, RWAs would be it because the concentrated power of these associations enable them to oppress as much as they want, overreaching their power almost in every day to day aspect.
However, it only came into limelight after the nationwide lockdown in India with harassment cases being reported from all across the country. This is just the tip of the iceberg – the problem has always existed and has been ignored for quite a long time.
It’s time to bring some issues forward.
A Nightmare for Animal Lovers
My first encounter with RWA/AOA was when my family had just moved from a small town in Haryana to this still developing, young, well maintained area in Ghaziabad, Indirapuram. A society with about a 1000 flats, a huge green park, expensive cars and a system in place.
We thought we had landed in a city paradise, living a life of comfort until we realised it was quite the opposite actually. For starters, it is a sin to be an animal lover or to be unmarried, to be any maintenance worker/security guard in these gated neighbourhoods.
These are run by the rules of the RWA, with power in the hands of few, as if it has its own constitution. If you’ve seen Jordan Peele’s masterpiece, “Get Out”, that’s exactly how it felt, extremely cold and weird.
In my case, popular demand amongst the vocal residents and those supporting the dubiously elected RWA in power was to get rid of anyone who remotely loved or fed animals. Here I was, a 17 year old girl, confused as to why 45-50 year old uncles with their equally arrogant wives have gathered around me trying to assault me? You’re right, I was feeding dogs and they don’t like animals.
Traumatized by the incident, I decided to volunteer for an animal rights NGO, People For Animals in Delhi. To my surprise, I wasn’t the only one facing this harassment. As I spent more time reading distress emails from all over the country against RWA harassment of animal feeders, I started researching extensively.
It may sound shocking to some but the cases of these associations harassing young students, job trainees, tenants, animal feeders, maintenance workers were more than I had expected.
Archaic Views on Gender
In my quest to find out more, I met Sanjeev. He is a 22 year old student of law, currently residing in a society in Sector 62 Noida. The area is filled with students and young professionals.
“We study in a Co-Ed college and we often have projects, group studies before exams, the RWA is intolerant if a female wants to visit our flat even during the day. They will not only stop her from entering, they will morally find her devoid of character. The fact that young people are thought of as criminals is just illogical and disrespectful. Our activities are always monitored. It is a nightmare living away from home”, he said.
In a similar case, Apekshit, a 22 year old along with his friend wanted to visit his female friend’s house for their music practise as they were to perform as an acoustic duo in a week. I asked him if he was allowed to go in and he looked at me as if I wasn’t supposed to ask this question.
After a pause, he said “They took my Aadhar card to allow me in and they didn’t allow my friend”. Surprised when I retorted with “That’s illegal, did you file a complaint?”, he laughed and said “hum toh student hain, ghar badi mushkil se milta hai, nikal denge yeh log” (We are students, we go through so much trouble to find a flat first, they’ll throw us out if we throw tantrums).
Ayushi is another law student residing in a Ghaziabad Society and her experience left me speechless:
“I live in a flat in Indirapuram with three other girls. This society is still not ready to accept that boys and girls can be friends. RWAs self-declared control chokes us. They have come to our flat many times at night just for random checking or after getting a fake complaint from our neighbours. They crossed their limits when one of my flatmate’s brother came to stay for one night in our flat as he had no other place to go to and had to leave early morning the very next day. The neighbours started messaging on the society’s WhatsApp group (in which we were not added) assassinating our character. It was 1 am in the night, the RWA forcefully tried to enter our house. When we resisted, they called the police. We showed the Aadhar card in order to prove that both of them were close cousins. They called our landlords and parents at midnight… created a huge scene just to know if they really were cousins. No male member – be it brother, father, male friend – is allowed to come to our flat. All we need is to be treated like we’re fellow humans.”
A Vindictiveness Towards Women?
Vishal Gautam is a young advocate working with popular Animal Rights Activist Ms Kaveri Rana in Noida. On being asked about the cases of RWA harassing animal feeders, he said
“90 percent of the cases I get are all of women being harassed by these RWAs. Most of them are unmarried or single women. They (RWAs) feel that since these women are tenants, they won’t report and they can get away with any kind of criminal offense. Last month we had a case of a Chinese woman who was brutally assaulted by a man who hit her on her lower back, hands with a rod because she was feeding a stray dog. I took her case and ensured arrest but the RWA of the society poisoned the dog.”
He further added that the RWAs make up their own by-laws and then act like mobs to go after their targets. “It’s just sad to see this everyday, middle aged men grab these women, assault them, they act in groups, in mobs, they never leave any stone unturned to hurt animals and their feeders,” he explained.
The sheer brutality of the way these RWAs function can be seen from another example he gave:
“We got another recent case from Vaishali, the girl was in tears, completely shattered. They cut her electricity, entered her house, broke things, told her to vacate in a day. They are goons functioning in the name of welfare.”
The Tyranny of By-Laws
The question is, why is any of this allowed?
It is because the RWAs are technically allowed to frame their own “by-laws”. These rules and regulations govern the day-to-day functioning of these housing societies. Hence, the power lands in the hand of a loosely elected “President” who in most cases seems to have taken the role of the country’s president.
Under the legal cover of welfare, regulations against young unmarried tenants, against keeping pets, against feeding stray animals, against freedom of movement for young students are made.
It may seem that these associations are created for the benefit of the residents in a society, the reality is more than disappointing. While most of India may be oblivious to these associations, the RWAs or Apartment Owners Associations (AOAs) are common in metropolitan cities and state capitals where residential areas consist of high rise buildings, gated colonies/societies etc.
RWAs aka AOAs are formed and registered according to the respective State Act, for example Uttar Pradesh has Uttar Pradesh Apartment (Promotion of Construction, Ownership and Maintenance) Act 2010.
A registrar of societies registers these societies and their “elected”RWAs/AOAs. The members, election procedure is detailed out in these state acts itself. These associations are private and they come under the ambit of Association of Persons (AOPs) as per the Income Tax Act. They are created so that the society’s maintenance, resident’s demands can be well taken care of.
The law’s intention may be innocent but this Frankenstein’s monster of an association has its claws deep in the system.
One may find parallels with Khap Panchayats but at least those are now under the radar of the District Administration to function properly. RWAS/AOAs on the other hand are freely making their own rules which fly against legal rights and the tenets of the Constitution.
A section of society is oppressed and tyrannized for the majority to be happy and stable. The local netas a.k.a. parshads/councillors have to get their votes from these societies after all, hence there’s a certain political tinge to the situation.
A complete ban on regulation of property rentals, sale, possession by RWAs/AOAs is a need of the hour. In fact, by-laws must first be submitted to the district administration to be applicable. In a free country like India, what justifies a ban on feeding animals or giving flats on rent to unmarried people?
How stereotypically discriminatory should one have to be to allow that in a rational world ?
Without some urgent steps to remedy this situation, we are unlikely to see any change. The systems which give rise to this kind of oppressive behaviour have been thriving for a long time, and have no interest in reform. And at the end of the day, all oppression requires, is an oppressor and a victim.
(Medhavi Mishra is a law student in her final year of graduation. She is an animal rights and vegan activist. She has also written a book on a vegetarian diet for dogs with various kidney, cancer and chronic illnesses. She can be reached at @MishraMedhavi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)