IT WAS SOMETIME IN the middle of the lockdown when Dr Rohan Salunke first noticed the barricade that had come up on the lane outside his house. Those living in the buildings and chawls of the area in Mumbai’s Malad suburb did not want anyone entering or leaving. A group of men, Salunke learnt, would sit at the barricade to enforce the blockade throughout the day.
Dr Salunke, who travels almost every day to the Mahatma Phule Charitable Trust hospital in Navi Mumbai where he works as a radiation oncologist, was aware of the difficulties healthcare professionals like him were facing in their neighbourhoods. So he worked around the problem. He would leave around seven in the morning, long before any of those men showed up at the barricade, and returned late in the night to avoid them. “I’d just get out of my car, push the barricade aside and move on,” he says.
But one day, he was late by around an hour.
“A group of 12 men threatened me. It became very ugly. And eventually they allowed me to leave, but I was told I would not be allowed to return,” he says.
Dr Salunke eventually had to turn to the police, who then goaded the men to remove the barricade.
“It was really weird,” Dr Salunke says. “Because for quite some time, there was like a parallel justice system in this area. Whatever the rules, if they didn’t want something, it didn’t happen.”
Dr Salunke’s was one of the few cases where an entire neighbourhood of buildings on a single lane came up with a rule of its own. In most cases, the guilty party has been a single cooperative housing society (CHS) or residential welfare association (RWA). Those working in essential services have been threatened and assaulted, and often made to move out. In Delhi, one doctor had to shift to an OYO room. In Mumbai, over 80 nurses from Bhatia Hospital, which was sealed after an outbreak occurred there, had to be accommodated within the hospital or in hotel rooms nearby after their housing societies, around eight of those, did not allow them to even return to pick up their belongings.
It isn’t just those working in essential services. When people cocooned themselves in various lockdown phases, they found every small aspect of their lives now being monitored and controlled by their RWAs. Chairmen and secretaries—a vast majority of them senior retired men who fill their days playing carrom in the housing society games room and managing the mundane duties needed for the upkeep of housing colonies—are now thrilled about the new emergency powers vested in them.
Once the lockdown came into force, within the gates of housing colonies, mini-dictatorships ensued. In the guise of the larger interest of the housing colony, individual rights were trampled upon. Many RWAs found the rules enforced by the government during the lockdown too soft and made up their own. New circulars arrived over the RWA WhatsApp group, those found guilty of breach shamed the next day. Residents had to declare their travel history, some RWAs, in the early part of the lockdown, were even found circulating official lists of Indians who had recently returned from countries that had been badly hit by Covid-19. Newspapers were forbidden; parcels had to be collected from gates; outsiders, even those employed to care for the sick or elderly, weren’t allowed in; residents, whatever the emergency, weren’t allowed to step out.
RWA chairmen and secretaries—mostly retired men who fill their days playing carrom and managing the mundane duties needed for the upkeep of housing colonies—are thrilled about the new emergency powers vested in them
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But now when governments have ordered for relaxations and many individuals are returning to work, people are finding that their RWAs are still not playing ball. The lockdown maybe overbut the RWA refuses to cede its emergency powers.
Sanitation points and thermal screening are de rigueur. The Aarogya Setu app is becoming a must in many places. In some places, guests are being asked to provide medical certificates saying they are Covid-19-free. In others, where guests are allowed for a few hours, watchmen are being asked to scan car boots to ensure none of these have large bags indicating they are moving in for a long time. Maids and technicians find themselves not being allowed in, or with heavy restrictions, or sometimes climbing several floors since lifts are being barred for them.
At Paradise Heights, a large colony of six tall buildings in Mumbai’s Borivali area that houses, according to one member, around 3,500 people, no one is still allowed to enter the colony. No maids are permitted; in fact any visitor who plans to visit a resident must carry a doctor’s certificate that declares he has none of Covid-19’s symptoms. This society had been particularly tough even during the lockdown. For much of the lockdown, the gates of each of the six buildings were locked, and a watchman was posted outside each building to make sure nobody ventured out. Later, this was eased, but only a single member from a house could step out during a window period of about two hours every day.
“There used to be lots of arguments and discussions. Many thought the [housing] society was being too strict. But these rules were for our own good,” says Vaibhav Powale, a resident in the colony.
Despite these precautions, one individual tested positive during the lockdown. How did the housing society respond to this news? “We got the BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation] to seal not just the floor [where the case was detected] but the entire building,” Powale says.
The greatest contention is over whether maids should be allowed. Priya (last name withheld upon request), a corporate communications professional who lives with her husband, child and mother-in-law in a gated community in Mumbai’s Powai area, points out that most RWAs tend to have only male members. “These guys don’t suffer. Because it’s their wives or daughters-in-law doing all the household chores,” she says. “Our [RWA] WhatsApp group is filled with all kinds of crude sexist jokes about how women are not able to take care of their homes without bais. I have been told to adjust a bit for the good of all. I’m sure if any of these uncles were in my situation, juggling a job along with household chores, they would have had no hesitation in bringing the maids back.”
The greatest contention is over whether maids should be allowed inside. “RWA guys don’t suffer. Because it’s their wives or daughters-in-law doing all the household chores,” says Priya from Mumbai
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Many of these disagreements have led to verbal and sometimes physical confrontations, often with the police having to restore calm. Ramesh Prabhu, the founder and Chairman of Maharashtra Societies Welfare Association (MahaSeWa), an umbrella group of CHS’ in Maharashtra, jokes that every police station in cities like Delhi and Mumbai now knows of all the politics and fissures of housing colonies within their jurisdictions. Unsurprisingly, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Bombay High Court two weeks ago asking for the state to issue uniform guidelines for all CHSes.
THE PIL BY advocate Yusuf Iqbal Yusuf, which wasn’t admitted in court, pointed out that managing committees which govern housing societies have no experience in healthcare and have framed guidelines on the basis of improper and incomplete information. Their restrictions have been arbitrary and unreasonable, he says, sometimes going to the extent of insisting that all visitors must now prove that they have tested negative for Covid-19.
About a week ago, Prabhu organised a webinar for around 650 members of various CHS’ managing committees in Mumbai and other cities in Maharashtra. “Almost the entire duration was spent on questions about whether maids were to be allowed in or not,” he says.
According to Prabhu, the state government has not been clear on this point. “In Maharashtra, the Begin Again document [which frames the guidelines of this current phase of relaxations], allows for self-employed individuals like plumbers and electricians, but makes no mention for domestic helps,” he says. It is presumed, he says, that they are allowed too; some municipal corporations like those in Pune and Kalyan-Dombivli (close to Mumbai) have brought out circulars that clarify this.
But in Mumbai, this unprecedented situation has met a familiar Indian malaise: the bureaucracy.
“We have approached the government so many times to clarify the situation in Mumbai. But when we go to the state government, they ask us to go to the BMC, the BMC asks us to go to the collector’s office, and the collector tells us to go to the state government. So we are all caught in this loop,” Prabhu says.
According to Prabhu, a lot of the onus on rows breaking out in housing colonies across the country rests with governments. In a lot of these cases, he says, the state government hasn’t specified the exact role the managing committee of these colonies should perform. In some cases, he points out, the government has had unreasonable expectations, like the Maharashtra government announcing last month (later retracting) that committee members of CHS in Covid-19-affected wards in Mumbai will have to maintain a daily log of body temperature and oxygen levels of all residents or face action for non-compliance.
MahaSeWa is supposed to represent the interests of cooperative housing societies in Mumbai. But for the last few months, Prabhu says, all his time is now spent helping out residents who are being given a hard time by their RWAs. “I just got a call from a tenant who is finally being allowed into his flat, but he has been told he can’t bring his possessions out of fear that deliverymen could carry the infection. How does this poor fellow live now, where does he cook or what does he wear?” says Prabhu. “And the most common problem is that maids are not being allowed. It’s unfair now when everything is being opened to keep insisting that maids can’t come.”
Prabhu’s own housing society does not permit maids. Residents also have to pay for a type of personal protective equipment kit every time they allow a repairman to fix something in their apartments. “Right now nobody in our society wants maids. But if anybody demands it, I’m going to support it.”
In Pune, the thorny issue of allowing maids into homes has led one housing colony to create a mobile app that can filter out those who live in a containment zone. Brijen Shah, a member of the Sujay Garden Housing Society, a large colony of bungalows and buildings where an estimated 2,000 people live, explains that each maid has been issued an identity card with a QR code. There are about 400 maids who work in this colony. The mobile app in the watchmen’s phones glow red every time a maid living in a containment zone has her ID card scanned.
“There was a big argument over allowing maids in. And now that everything is being opened up, we thought why not come out with an app that can eliminate those maids who are the riskiest carriers [of infection]?” Shah says.
Every morning, Shah procures a list of containment zones in Pune and distributes it to residents over WhatsApp. “It’s the prerogative of the residents to inform their maids not to come. But even if they don’t, with the app, nobody can now enter,” he says.
Not all of the steps being taken by housing colonies however are being criticised. Several RWAs have converted the now-unused club houses and gymnasiums within their colonies into isolation wards with oxygen cylinders in case any member gets infected and fails to find a hospital bed.
Rashid (name changed upon request), the treasurer of a large housing colony in central Mumbai, has procured two oxygen cylinders. Plans are now afoot to convert the colony’s gym into an isolation ward. He hopes that over time, steps like these help paper over the differences that have crept up across the building.
Throughout the lockdown, several arguments broke out over the harshness of the building’s rules, often with even policemen getting involved. At one point, a well-known doctor who owned an apartment in this building returned to it. Her mother had died from a non-Covid-19 ailment and she wanted to grieve alone. “But everybody was scared that she might be infected. So a big argument broke out. One resident even made phone calls to the BMC saying she had Covid-19. The lady stayed one night in the flat and never returned. I heard even the hospital [where she worked] heard of this rumour and asked her not to come to work,” he says.
“All this feels so terrible. This was such a nice loving [housing] society. We all loved each other so much. But now nobody gets along with anyone,” Rashid goes on. “The virus will go away one day. But I don’t know what will happen to the society.”