“In general, I don’t have a good relationship with my RWA, but COVID brought out their worst side,” says Mukesh (name changed), a resident of Ozone Evergreen Apartments in Sarjapur Road.
His apartment RWA is one of many in Bengaluru which have come up with their own rules during the pandemic. One of these rules was to restrict the entry of domestic workers into the premises.
According to Mukesh, the RWA had promised to change this rule on June 1. They introduced declaration forms, seeking detailed information about the domestic workers and the needs of residents. But after having these forms filled, the RWA dropped the idea altogether and continued with their policy. Recently, they started allowing domestic workers in, but only for residents desperately in need – pregnant women, elderly people, etc.
More than this particular rule, it is the RWA’s attitude that bothers Mukesh. “The rules are completely opaque to me. We don’t see them taking opinions, it all happens internally and they are not accountable to anyone. Tomorrow they’ll make rules about what kind of food you can eat or who can live in the building,” he says.
Meanwhile, Satish (name changed), an RWA Board member at the apartment sees nothing wrong with making rules to deal with the pandemic. “Does the government consult every citizen for every policy they make? Government is releasing guidelines, and we are looking at the needs of our society and doing that at the apartment level for everyone’s betterment.”
But RWAs are not government bodies. Yet, in their newfound legitimacy, they continue to receive tacit support from high-ranking officers in the police and BBMP.
Across Bengaluru, many like Mukesh have complained of RWAs’ overreach and exclusionary rules. Many RWAs are reported to have barred domestic workers from using lifts, banned visitors altogether, checked boots of residents cars’ for luggage to see if they’d travelled, and even forced residents into home quarantine for 14 days in addition to the government-mandated quarantine. To enraged residents, RWAs’ rules represent a form of unwarranted policing.
Speaking to me, BBMP Commissioner B H Anil Kumar says he has received such complaints but won’t interfere. He says that residents can file court cases if they have complaints.
RWAs to the rescue?
Vikram Rai, General Secretary of the Bangalore Apartments’ Federation (BAF), says,”RWAs have played a key role since the pandemic hit. Now as the unlock begins, their role will become even more important. Residents are confused about what the rules and guidelines are, and they look to us for direction.” BAF is an association of over 750 RWAs in the city.
Instructions to RWAs in the recent guidelines include:
- Care and attention to housekeeping staff, providing them with sanitisation materials
- Thermal screening of residents and visitors at the gate
- Monitoring those in home quarantine and ensuring they don’t move about
- Informing municipal authorities about cases, quarantine and contacts
- Ensuring social distancing in common areas like parks and walkways
Vikram says, “Of our 750+ member apartments, only one is a containment zone.” The numbers have been low in other apartments too, he points out. According to BBMP’s COVID Bulletin of June 14, only 14 of the 114 containment zones were tagged ‘AP’ or apartment. “This is only possible because of the work of RWAs, no doubt,” says Vikram.
Dr Sandhya, Nodal Officer (Managed Health Care), BBMP, says that RWAs have been very helpful in ensuring quaratine. Ironically, even at NGV apartments in Koramangala where she lives, domestic workers weren’t allowed in for quite long. “It was so hard for residents who were working and had kids. Even the domestic workers couldn’t earn a living,” she says. Though government/BBMP guidelines have never barred domestic workers in apartments, the rule was withdrawn in Dr Sandhya’s apartment only after a media report on the issue.
Vikram says, “There are good RWAs and there are bad ones. We get many complaints about them and we’ve clarified that there is no need for RWAs to supersede government rules.” On whether domestic workers were allowed to work or not, BAF had stuck its neck out to say that life has to move on and RWAs should not stop that. “But, there is very little we can do if individual RWAs decide one way or another.”
Can RWAs make COVID-related rules at all?
Siddharth Raja, a Bengaluru-based advocate who has worked on several cases involving RWAs, says, “Actually, RWAs can’t really do this. They don’t have the statutory power to do so. They are, after all, voluntary associations.”
Most RWAs in the city are registered under the Karnataka Societies Registration Act (KSRA), 1960, and some under the Karnataka Apartment Ownership Act (KAOA), 1972.
KSRA allows a group of seven or more adults to register as a Society under special cases – for promotion of charity, education, etc. Though the Act does not mention residential interests as one of the cases, most RWAs in Bengaluru are registered under KSRA, says Vikram. KAOA, on the other hand, is more specifically for apartment owners.
In both cases, there are stringent conditions for making or amending rules. “Powers of RWAs to make rules are actually very limited and heavily regulated by the Registrar of Co-operative Societies (RCS),” says Siddharth.
For instance, Article 16 of the KAOA says that no modification to the bye-laws of an association can be done without filing it with the ‘competent authority’, who is the RCS for both Acts. In KSRA, Article 9 lays down that a proposition can be accepted only if 75% members are in favour.
But RWAs claim that the newly enforced rules are not ‘rules’ per se. Satish says, “Changing bye-laws requires a long process and 75% majority in a general body meeting, but these [COVID rules] are operational rules or guidelines. They can be made by the Board.”
However, neither the KSRA nor KAOA mention ‘operational rules or guidelines’ specifically, but do they refer to ‘administrative rules and regulations’. Siddharth says that these usually pertain to only maintenance of common areas, collecting maintenance fees etc.
Ozone Evergreen apartment’s bye-laws doesn’t specify the process for making/amending such administrative rules. Sathish further points out that his apartment bye-laws say the Board has necessary powers for ‘administration of the association’, ‘management of the building’ and even doing ‘all things necessary for residents’ welfare’. With such vague terms, a lot is left to interpretation, and residents may have to take disputes regarding RWAs’ COVID rules to the RCS or the courts, says Siddharth. He opines that the primary question is not whether RWAs can make special rules, but how government bodies can empower voluntary organisations.
Ward committees, not RWAs, should be empowered as per law
Another problem with RWAs making their own rules is that government had enforced special rules during the lockdown under the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA), 2005. NDMA allows the central government to direct lower tiers, all the way to local bodies, to take special measures during natural disasters. But none of the Centre’s COVID guidelines even mention RWAs.
“RWAs can at the most collaborate with government bodies during the pandemic, but they cannot make their own rules or become enforcers. That has to be done by a government body. Strictly speaking, RWAs’ rules have no standing. In fact, it could become a form of vigilantism,” says Siddharth.
As per law, the pandemic duties entrusted to RWAs should have instead been given to Ward Disaster Management Cells (WDMCs). Each ward committee has to set up WDMCs as per the Karnataka Municipal Corporations (Ward Committee) Rules, 2016, for disaster response at the local level.
Won’t interfere, says BBMP Commissioner
Despite several complaints from residents, authorities have continued to extend their support to RWAs. Mukesh, for instance, had tried to seek redressal from the BBMP and the state government over social media. “All I got was a meek response from them saying I should negotiate with my RWA,” he says.
Speaking to me, BBMP Commissioner B H Anil Kumar says, “We have received complaints…but I will not deal with that, RWAs will. We will not micromanage. Whether it’s legal or not is a different matter.”
Asked about RWAs’ rules on domestic workers, he says RWAs were coming up with rules only to “safeguard residents” and it is “okay if they make their own rules”.
But where are the Ward Disaster Management Cells?
Even as COVID cases increased in March and April, no WDMCs were set up in Bengaluru. In April, Kathyayini Chamaraj, Executive Trustee at the non-profit CIVIC, brought this to the attention of High Court Chief Justice A S Oka. The court took this up at a PIL hearing, and as per its directions, on April 26, BBMP issued orders to form DMCs in all wards.
As per BBMP’s orders, responsibilities of WDMCs include:
- Ensuring quarantine of non-residents from other countries
- Helping enforce containment zones
- Ensuring social distancing
- Relief efforts for migrant workers
- Implementing rules issued by the state government and BBMP
Yet these responsibilities are still being carried out by apartment RWAs . Kathyayini says, “DMCs were formed on paper, but no one knew what to do. Even simply having meetings was a problem for them.” DMCs would comprise the councillor, ward committee members, ARO, AEE, medical officer, local police, PHC doctor, BESCOM and BWSSB engineers, as well as an RWA representative.
However, Anil Kumar says, “WDMCs were only constituted recently, they don’t have the kind of reach that RWAs have.” In areas outside apartments, BBMP is coordinating with NGOs and citizen groups for COVID response, he says.
Kathyayini says, “If WDMCs were working, they would be coordination bodies and could plan at the ward level. Unlike RWAs, they also wouldn’t only represent the interests of affluent residential societies.” WDMCs could have supported migrant workers in crisis too, for example.
BBMP’s perpetual resistance to empowering ward committees has reflected during COVID as well. Its decision to empower RWAs might have helped its COVID response, but has come at a cost to many, and throws light on the city’s broken governance structure.