Resident Welfare Associations – The Moral Police in Urban Spaces

I lived with my parents until the age of 24 in an apartment complex. Until then, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) seemed harmless. For me, it was just a group of uncles and aunties (whom my parents knew), who worked for the benefit of the residents of our apartment, and made rules that everyone followed – what could possibly be wrong with that? Wasn’t it a selfless job aimed at helping the community?

Well, that’s not always the case.

RWAs operate in most gated communities and housing societies in India. These are registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 and are formed to represent the interests of house-owners and tenants. However, these associations often interfere in the private lives of residents through their arbitrary rules such as whether or not flats can be rented to single men and women, whether tenants can keep pets at home, and so on and so forth. They make tenants seek permission for everything under the sun – even for installing cable or an internet connection.

My unpleasant experiences with RWAs began when I moved from Chennai to Hyderabad at the age of 24 for a job. Before moving out, I had browsed many platforms online, including MagicBricks, 99Acres and for apartments before travelling to Hyderabad with my parents – who accompanied to help find a place.

I had also shortlisted several affordable apartments close to my workplace. Quite naively, I presumed everything would go well. After all, I was a 24-year-old woman with a stable job, no pets and no children looking for an apartment – who could refuse me?

The answer? Almost everyone.

My phone conversations with most brokers and apartment owners were largely the same. I would mention the apartment I was interested in, and the first thing I would get asked is, “Who is the tenant? Bachelor or family?”

The moment I would say the B-word, they would hang up without an explanation. One broker finally realised how clueless I was and told me, “The owner will only rent to male bachelors or families, not to single women”.

Several days passed and, out of desperation, I thought about telling the brokers that I had my parents with me, hoping to convince that I was a safe, reliable and non-threatening potential tenant. So the next time, when I spoke to a broker, I told them that my parents would sign the lease with me. He declined in no time and said that, according to the building’s RWA rules, single women can’t be given a flat on rent.

I couldn’t believe this was happening in HITEC city, Hyderabad, a place filled to the brim with offices.

Fortunately, a couple of days later, I found an apartment in a co-living building which meant I would not have to deal with RWAs.

Also read: On Moving Out

Over the past few years, I’ve heard multiple stories of single women not being allowed to enter their own rented flat if they were found returning home “too late” in the night.

Here is what is wrong with this: If these women were refused the apartment like I was, I’d understand. Apartment and house owners have a right to decide who lives in the apartments they own. But what is happening to these women is a different case altogether – these women have duly signed the lease agreements with the owners and are also paying rent and the maintenance fee. In such a scenario, how fair is it for the RWAs to stop them at the gate, treat them like criminals, refuse them entry and interrogate them with unnecessary questions like why they’re late, where they’re coming from and who dropped them.

How is this acceptable?

When asked for an explanation, RWAs seem to hide behind the defense that they are “protecting” families in the apartment complex from “immoral, characterless women”. Since when did RWAs become the moral police? Who gave them that power?

Whenever I discuss this issue with my peers, one thing I hear quite often is how men also face similar problems, and how, at times, they aren’t allowed to invite women in their flats. But in my opinion, the problem isn’t the same for all. RWA rules for single tenants, when it comes to inviting someone from the opposite gender, are the same for both men and women. However, if a single man were to return late, say at 2 am, would he also be refused entry into his own rented flat with the logic that “good men don’t stay out so late”? Perhaps in some cases, but it’s rare.

Women in India have enough to worry about – their safety, the pay parity and so much more. The last thing we need to worry about is whether or not we will be allowed entry into our own apartments that we pay rent for, if we return late at night.

While legal remedies exist, it’s not the easiest route to embark on. In order to avail that, women would have to file a case against the RWA – a powerful association of homeowners, and a a surefire way to alienate their neighbours.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any easy solutions. At this point, all we can do is to raise awareness on the issue. If you live in a building with an RWA and know of a tenant being denied entry, bring it up with the president or the secretary and explain how unfair it is. The next time elections for the RWA are held, encourage a more sensible neighbour or family member to join the association so that some sense prevails in the future.

Asma Mohamed is an aspiring feminist writer who hopes to contribute to the achievement of some semblance of gender equality through her writing. You can find her on Instagram @aliya.m1995.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty