If Jane Austen was transported from 18th century pre-Victorian England to 21st century post-pandemic India, she would not have needed to look very far for a setting for her next novel. Her sharp observations would have provided authentic social commentary on an entity that saw extraordinary visibility in the last few months – the Residents’ Welfare Association or the RWA.
With the proliferation of apartment complexes and gated communities over the past two decades, RWAs have become a distinctive urban feature in India. But it has taken a pandemic to reveal their power, with many RWAs acting no less than mini-republics.
When the coronavirus lockdown began in India in March 2020, these resident associations suddenly found themselves in the spotlight, taking on the responsibility of enforcing ever-changing government rules, and often going well beyond them. Their initial focus was to keep the community Covid-free, and many, to their credit, achieved success. But their decisions left a wider imprint on the neighbourhood, exposing fear and deep-rooted biases across social constructs of class and caste.
The typical RWA is responsible for maintaining the common facilities of residential neighbourhoods and apartment complexes, organising group activities and safeguarding the rights of owners. While its members are elected, serve on a voluntary basis and work pro-bono, they are bound by rules and bye-laws, often set by the government. These cover all aspects of their functioning, from elections, membership criteria, voting rights, tenure and financial compliance.
While the legal and financial processes in the RWA are mostly well defined and rigorously enforced, with residents often drawing the attention of the association to a particular bye-law that has been misinterpreted, there is not enough attention placed on creating processes to be fair and inclusive.
To ensure that these resident associations are not merely instruments of power but are genuine forums to make the everyday lives of residents comfortable, RWAs must take a critical look at their processes. The field of human resource development already has ready tools that these associations can effectively harness.
Here is a handy guide on HR best practices that RWAs can adopt.
Most RWAs have working committees with standard positions: president, secretary, treasurer. Many also have sub-committees that oversee various areas like sanitation, landscape, waste collection, sports and culture. Often, there are turf battles between the committees and their office bearers.
These can be avoided if committee members have clear job descriptions that spell out their work, avoid overlaps and highlight their key focus areas. While monthly meetings throw up a list of to-dos, a well-defined job description would help the office bearer get clarity on their main responsibilities, avoid accusations of overreach, and is far weightier than a mere check-list.
Code of conduct
It is routine for organisations to have a code of conduct that articulates the values, principles and behavioural norms expected of employees. While RWAs may not explicitly need culture sensitisation, a similar set of rules and regulations should be handed out at the stage of buying or renting a house so that new residents are aware of the norms and behaviours expected of them.
This comes in handy especially when skirmishes break out on social media – often on resident WhatsApp groups or apartment social networking platforms.
Many residents are genuinely clueless about living in a gated community. Rather than expect everyone to simply pick up the nuances, a strong set of to-dos will bell the cat. How should residents interact with each other? How should they interact with the staff? What behaviour is acceptable and what is not acceptable?
For instance, during the lockdown, there were examples of residents directing their ire on the security personnel – rude behaviour like this should be a strict no-no. What can be posted online and what requires prior permission of the RWA? Is religion a topic that should remain out of resident conversations? What about profanity?
Another aspect that deserves attention is the phenomenon of “naming and shaming” or openly posting details of residents for various reasons, including for flouting rules. This was seen during the lockdown when details of residents who had contracted coronavirus were shared on informal groups by so-called “well-wishers”.
While data privacy in both government and private companies has been in the focus in recent years, a friendly neighbourhood is perhaps the last place one would find it.
RWAs need to give it due thought and importance. What data about a resident is public? What can be posted by a resident or even the RWA on social networking platforms? Can residents take pictures of hapless bystanders or fellow residents and upload them on social media?
In corporate culture, onboarding is the last mile in recruitment. It gives the joinee a glimpse into the new world of work. It sets boundaries, empowers them with information on policies and sets the tone of what is expected at work.
In contrast, at most RWAs, knowledge is passed on to new committee members anecdotally – not the most efficient way to maintain clarity.
If RWAs were to adopt the “corporate” approach of onboarding new members, training them on what they can expect in the coming year, and providing detailed FAQs on specific policies and programs, the newly elected members would find their roles easier to assimilate. It would also provide continuity between outgoing and incoming members.
Diversity and inclusion
RWAs are often microcosms of India, melting pots of different cultures, home to a group that has been in the news recently – the working migrant.
While the merits of heterogeneity cannot be overstated, such societal groups also need to consciously practice inclusion. Cultural activities must not over emphasise one group over the other, and religious activities cannot harp on only one religion.
Residents need to be sensitised to the dangers of parochialism or regionalism and this can only be done when tenets of diversity and inclusion are practiced in the association.
Inclusivity can be actively encouraged by the RWA, for instance, by crowdsourcing ideas to ensure that there is diversity of thought. Ensuring that the committee does not adopt “token diversity” – with a lone woman wearing the crown just to “check the box” – is an obvious place to begin.
The association should not focus on activities that only cater to one generation or one community, especially when every resident is paying for them. Likewise, amenities need to be easy for all to access, including the physically challenged.
Finally, the association must put in place processes that help the staff working on housekeeping and security in the common areas and domestic workers visiting individual homes, lead lives of dignity and welfare.
In a world where news travels at the speed of WhatsApp, the mushrooming of several informal social media groups can lead to speculation and hearsay. A formal, centralised communication system will help all residents get accurate, credible information and put everyone on the same page.
Beyond digital and email-based communication, RWAs can adopt a range of ideas: placing posters in common areas like lifts, receptions, clubhouses, gates; sending SMS alerts about an annual general meeting and regular updates on the status of ongoing projects, upcoming events or any matter that concerns the residents; organising town halls where residents can directly interact with the RWA office-bearers and clear any misgivings they have. These measures would greatly benefit the community.
While the pandemic has revealed the importance of RWAs, it has also exposed faultlines and vulnerabilities in community living. If RWAs apply basic principles of human resource development to their functioning, who knows, the gated community might just become a great place to live.
The author is an independent human resources consultant who lives in Bangalore. She works with small and medium enterprises on all aspects of human resources, especially prevention of sexual harassment and diversity and inclusion.