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Societies Make Laws, Break Them In Time Of COVID-19

Kriti Kalra | New Delhi

The national lockdown implemented in the country to control the spread of the deadly COVID-19 has affected almost every aspect of life – food, movement, security and housing. The lockdown has ensured law enforcement agencies pool in their resources towards the pandemic control measures. And, while the State is busy working overtime to save lives and ensure the earliest return to normalcy in the country, managing committee members in housing societies across India have adopted new roles of  'policing', begun launching 'inquiries' even making their own ‘laws’ and more to supposedly ‘protect’ members in the time of COVID-19.

The Draft generates a report based on inputs from correspondents across India on the role of managing committee members in cooperative housing societies in the time of COVID-19 and the unlawful excesses they indulge in.

Creating rules, on whim, for 'delivery'

An upscale housing complex in Bandra, Mumbai was the recent target of the panic triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak and the ensuing lockdown. A few residents of the society got upset by the ‘new rules’ for goods deliveries and other services imposed by the committee.

“Earlier, delivery agents were allowed up till the building lobby to drop the groceries, milk, food, etc. However, following instructions from the police, the deliveries were now being allowed till the main gate only,” says a member of the housing complex. Soon an argument between two factions of the society ensued over an ‘interpretation of open areas where delivery agents were permitted to enter’ and the police had to intervene to control the situation.

A housing society in South Mumbai 'contained' due to the COVID-19 outbreak
'Locked' out of home with family too

In another society in MIDC, Andheri, a family of four, including two children, were restrained by the society from entering their own premises fearing contamination after they returned from Surat. Owing to the high-handedness of this society’s managing committee, making ‘new laws’ for everyone to follow, the family was left stranded outside their home for a whopping 30 hours! They could enter their own house only when they wrote a letter to the society.

The restrictions were imposed through a rule framed after the lockdown by Maheshwari Nagar Foundation declaring 'no entry of any member, relative or tenant in the society if they were not in the society since March 24.' The notice further stated 'Tenants and members who are out will have to inform the society two days in advance, should get a medical certificate of COVID-19 negative for all family members from a reputed hospital.'

According to Assistant Municipal Commissioner of K (East) Ward Prashant Sapkale, “There is no such rule or restriction on residents. Even if the members and tenants are symptomatic and not adhering to rules, the society can only inform the BMC. It cannot restrict or penalise residents in any way stipulated by either the state government or by the BMC.”

Any rules or laws that are arbitrary, discretionary or in violation of the larger law in question – such as the Maharashtra Cooperative Societies Act/Rules or Bye-Laws of say Maharashtra – could be struck down for being discretionary, ultra vires even malafide in common law or be acted upon by the police should it be a cognisable offence as per the Indian Penal Code. For example: A managing committee’s act of defaming a member through notices, paperwork or publication could be treated as a civil or a criminal offence apart from being a society law irregularity. That said, in the time of COVID-19 and the lockdown, cooperative housing societies have been making rules that often seem excessive and violate the common law itself. These rules – like the ones permitting use of common spaces like the terrace by members during lockdown - can be struck down easily by complaining to the local authorities such as police, local civic authority, Registrar or a pertinent Court of Law as the case may warrant. The police can, in such cases, summon the ‘law-making’ managing committee and penalise them for such acts in contravention of Disaster Management Act and Lockdown rules of social distancing, even arrest them for the same, says Solicitor Gajanan Khergamker - www.societymatters.in

Problems mount for 'foreign-return' members

The sudden increase in COVID-19 positive cases in Ahmedabad and reports of ‘positive’ members found violating the home quarantine rules, even infecting others in the process, triggered panic among residents. In some instances, the local police and civic authorities had to be called in to control such violators.

Many cooperative housing society members who returned from foreign countries, after the COVID-19 outbreak, drew significant attention to themselves. Most such travellers were lucky to have considerate members within the society making the self-quarantine period easy for them by extending help with groceries, medicines and other essential items.

In the case of Iscon Greens society in Bopal, Ahmedabad that houses 182 bungalows, most ‘foreign-return’ members cooperated with the authorities by observing home quarantine. “It was a family of four who had returned from Dubai and were violating the self-isolation rules. When we told them to stay in quarantine, they blamed us for harassment. We had no option but to call our ward councillor who, in turn, sent a health team to check on them,” says member Shailesh Ganatra.

Orchid Whitefield - in Makarba, Ahmedabad - a society of over 2,000 residents, made travel history declaration of all its members mandatory and began submitting the same to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). Why, even before the lockdown was announced by PM Modi, since 20 March 2020, the committee members had started collecting travel history – domestic and international – of all its residents.

According to chairman Keyur Shah, “There was no resistance from the residents and everyone cooperated.” Additionally, they put hand sanitisers at all entry and exit gates and have been sanitising doors, elevators, etc. at multiple times throughout the day. “It is our moral responsibility to protect the society members,” says honorary secretary Kuldeep Rawat.

Housing societies shaming their own

Ahmedabad’s Ambawadi resident Pankti Vadalia had never anticipated the harassment that would be meted out by her housing society members on returning from the UK. A law student at Birmingham, Pankti flew to India, just in time, before India imposed a blanket ban on all international commercial passenger flights starting 22 March 2020 to control the spread of COVID-19 outbreak.

“I went through the tremendous pressure of putting my academic term on hold, taking a hiatus from my classes and packing my luggage for an indefinitely long trip – all in one day,” she recalls. “Seeing everyone desperate to go back to their home countries and worried flights might get cancelled was a terrifying sight to start with.”

Pankti Vadalia on her society terrace in Ahmedabad
She landed in Mumbai and went through thorough checks at the airport. “Our body temperatures were checked and we were directed to a desk where we submitted our travel history and informed the authorities about any symptoms. Despite finding no indicators, I was suggested to embark on home quarantine of 14 days by the health officials, solely due to the suspect origin of my journey. The immigration officer once again instructed me regarding the measures I should take and the rules to follow both during and after the assigned 14 days.”

She then took a flight to Ahmedabad exuberant that she managed to make it home in time. But, her happiness was short-lived. “Within hours of landing, I received a call from the chairman of my society who asked me various questions about what happened at the airport with the authorities. I responded to his queries, though I was not answerable to him.”

Despite the conversation, the chairman “demanded” to speak to my parents and “kept calling me persistently until I gave up and got him through my father.” Pankti’s father, Dr Kiran Vadalia, patiently heard out the chairman’s unreasonable demand for a “health certificate by the airport officials” as “proof of clearance.” The chairman refused to relent despite being told that there is no such certificate issued by law. With no headway, he agreed to write a letter “as a father and doctor,” ratifying her claims and permitting her to stay home.

Interestingly, all the while, Pankti had been observing the home quarantine. The AMC officials would visit her regularly, provide a few masks and hand sanitiser even put up the mandatory ‘sticker’ in front of the house to deter visitors.

However, the worst was yet to come. “The next day, all the men from my society gathered in the common area and summoned my father to ‘resolve’ the issue,” says Pankti. Adamant on demanding a “document proof” they even “interrogated him, treating him like a petty criminal.”

The society members dismissed the health check-ups conducted at the airport, the AMC team’s visits, even mocked government examinations. The members then demanded a blood test be done, facilitated by Pankti’s mother, Dr Bina Vadalia, Regional Deputy Director with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), Gujarat. When her father refused, a member went to the extent of instigating others to “raise their hands” on them if they “cared for their own children and families.” It would have snowballed into a violent situation.

Pankti Vadalia (second from left) with her family before the COVID-19 outbreak
Finally, to put an end to the ruckus, Pankti’s mother stepped in and called the Gujarat state nodal officer for COVID-19 crisis who clarified the government’s guidelines for testing only symptomatic patients and “took the responsibility of giving me a home quarantine instead of sending me to a facility, based on my physical condition at the airport. He even urged the residents not to over-react and ostracise travellers. It was only after the phone call that the members calmed down.”

However, the relief was short-lived as rumours spread in the area that “I was hospitalised for testing positive,” and the ostracism continued for long. That it was immoral and illegal was lost on the society, in particular, and people at large.

Imposing ‘Fines’ for 'Failure To Comply'

Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWA) have become self-styled guardians and started issuing guidelines and restrictions apparently to ensure ‘compliance’ with the national lockdown restrictions imposed by the government.

In Haryana, a RWA in Gurugram’s Sector 56 has imposed a fine of Rs 500 on anyone found violating the lockdown restrictions within their premises. They even constituted a response team to keep tabs on the movements of residents through CCTV cameras. President of Kendriya Vihar RWA Abhey Raj says, “The residents were warned but some were still found loitering around without any urgent need, so this decision was taken.”

Some residents are miffed as there is no clarity on who will be fined as people also step out for to buy essential items and for medical emergencies.

Forced to buy only from ‘select’ shops

Goa has reported very few cases of Coronavirus infection but the journey towards making it COVID-19 free has been tough. The unreasonable and whimsical behaviour of housing society committee members has been bothering most residents in Porvorim, Goa.

Many societies in the area have been, in a display of high-handedness, forcing residents to order groceries only from a select shop or two while the lockdown is in effect. This has upset the residents as not only are their needs left unfulfilled, they claim the committee members are receiving ‘cuts’ through such patently illegal rules. “How can I order everything from a shop, they fancy? Most of the items I need are not even available in that shop. So should I just keep quiet and cook what the committee wants me to?” says Porvorim resident Harshita Harmalkar.

Another resident Amruta Naik, also upset with the decision says, “I would not have bothered much with the choice of items available. It’s the quality and the cost that I am not happy with. Most items at the shop decided by the society are either spoilt, of bad quality and, almost all, very expensive. How will I budget my expenses like this? I don’t even know when the lockdown be over.”

(With inputs from Nivedita Pal in Mumbai, Manu Shrivastava in Ahmedabad, Prachi Desai in Gurugram and Carolina Rodriguez in Goa)

(The story was last updated on 11 May 2020)

On 25 April 2020, marking the successful completion of exactly a month since the national lockdown began, The Draft, in conjunction with DraftCraft Films, released 'Lights, Sound ... Lockdown' - a documentary capturing 'Mumbai In The Time Of COVID-19' at Ground Zero.


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