Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest offering to the public discourse is the term atmanirbharta, or self-reliance. In his own words, atmanirbharta rests on five pillars—the economy, infrastructure, system, demography and demand. He suggests in his formulation that it is individuals who are in a position of responsibility in the country. It follows that individuals are supposed to purchase goods and services in the market to strengthen the economy. The state, in this imagination, is no longer responsible to make people atmanirbhar by building their capacity, as economists such as Amartya Sen argue it should. Instead, the reverse is true—individuals in a market society will make the state atmanirbhar.
Some may consider the PM’s atmanirbharta discourse a mere thought experiment or political slogan, fleeting in the public memory. But they forget that there already exists in India a model of such atmanirbharta—the gated housing complexes in Indian cities and the RWAs that manage them. Populated by large numbers of young “tax-paying” professionals, RWAs are consumption spaces predominantly organised along market principles. The state is present in them, but only as a punitive enforcer of laws, not as a provider of welfare or services.
Residents’ Welfare Associations have regularly displayed their propensity to don the mantle of “responsibility” during the 10-week lockdown that followed the Covid-19 outbreak. RWA “uncles” were often mocked on Twitter and Facebook for enforcing strict, often crazy, rules in their apartment complexes. For instance, one RWA demanded that residents walk anti-clockwise to avoid crossing paths with potential vectors of Novel Coronavirus. Another Twitter user quipped, “RWA uncles are meeting and deciding whether we should allow domestic helps when they should themselves stay indoors.” The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) published an article that is critical of RWAs forcing residents and visitors to install the Aarogya Setu app. It says, “...RWAs are private self-administration bodies which lack the power to issue rules restricting the freedom of movement and right to livelihood of individuals.”
Yet the behaviour of RWAs during the Covid-19 crisis is just one manifestation of their progressively widening role. They are indeed “mini-republics”, as a critic recently said, but they did not spring up overnight. They have been shaping urban life at the neighbourhood level for decades. Yet the “uncle” moniker for RWA office-holders no longer captures how urban neighbourhood-level politics has changed in recent years.
For example, housing societies and RWAs in Noida and Gurgaon are diverse in both form and function. Not all RWAs are managed by retired “uncles”. There is also a new crop of young professionals running RWAs, who do not fit the popular imagination of old-timers. These younger office-bearers do not approach neighbourhood politics in a paternalistic way but are much more transactional and entrepreneurial.
In a way, the metamorphosis of RWAs is an expression of the new kind of politics that has taken shape in neo-liberal urban India. This is a politics based on individualism and entrepreneurial self-reliance, as opposed to claiming rights from the government. Human freedom and consumer satisfaction are not distinguishable in this politics. In this context, the PM’s pitch for atmanirbharta is only a sanskritised way of imposing throughout the country what RWAs have been advocating all along.
Urban housing policy, cooperative housing and RWAs:
The history of RWAs begins with the evolution of housing policies in a newly-independent India. The post-Partition refugee influx led to the mushrooming of slum settlements all over the urban landscapes. “Resettlement” became the buzzword in housing. Initially, Five-Year Plans provided for public housing, but they proved utterly inadequate to meet the burgeoning demand for homes in cities.
Co-operative housing was envisaged to bridge the gap between demand and provision of city homes, especially for the middle-income groups. Hence, housing societies were around even in the 1950s, but they grew substantially only after the 1970s. From 5,564 in 1959-60, they increased to 72,040 in 1993-94, a fifteen-fold increase and still growing.
In 1987, India finally drew up a national housing policy, which provided a somewhat coherent national housing scheme for the first time. So far, it was still primarily the government which was constructing homes. This changed in response to the tumultuous early 1990s when, in sync with the general direction of policymaking, the housing policy also began to emphasise on private participation.
Cooperative housing was typically based on a complex system of property ownership involving the state, the land developer, the co-operative society and its individual members. For example, an urban development authority (such as DDA) would acquire and develop land and lease it to a housing cooperative society, which would build homes or apartments and sub-lease them to individual members.
In most cases, the members shared not only the common amenities and areas but also the building. This required constant negotiation, cooperation and collective action among members. This is not the same as living in a “colony” made up of independent houses. In the latter, the owner is responsible for the upkeep of his own home while common amenities, such as parks, are typically maintained by the local municipal state. Conversely, in a cooperative housing set-up, ownership did not correspond to an independent building. Even common amenities did not belong to the state as such, but to the society itself. Naturally, this is what the RWAs derived their relevance and power from.
In this initial avatar, RWAs played a central role in property ownership and were constantly required to take collective action to make apartment living smooth for all residents. As the numbers of cooperative apartment societies grew over the 1980s many state governments formulated an Apartment Owners Act. The Delhi Apartments Owners Act, for example, was passed in 1986.
Housing societies in post-liberalisation cities:
The housing societies that have come up in new post-liberalisation cities—such as Noida and Gurgaon—are nothing like the housing societies of Delhi in the 1980s. Even in terms of physical characteristics, the housing cooperatives of say, Patparganj or Mayur Vihar in East Delhi, are a far cry from the high-rise complexes unique to Noida and Gurgaon. It is true that these new-fangled high-rises also have RWAs, and that the web of property ownership remains similar, but there are significant differences.
For example, the Noida Development Authority acquires land and leases it to a builder or developer, who constructs a housing complex on it and sub-leases each apartment to individuals. As inhabitants move into these complexes, an Apartment Owners’ Association has to be formed and registered. Builders are obliged to handover the common funds and maintenance responsibilities to this association within two years of occupation. However, the land lease remains with the builder. This adds another layer to the already complicated web of property ownership.
Neo-liberal economic theory privileged private builders and corporate real estate companies and made them the suppliers of a basic human necessity, shelter. But private-sector participation was not limited to real estate development and construction. Even maintenance of housing complexes is a corporatised and privatised business today. Multinational companies specialise in maintaining apartment complexes. Therefore, the term “RWA uncles” captures what the old RWAs were like, but not the new type. Indeed, both were propelled to neighbourhood prominence by neo-liberal policies, but the routes they took were different.
The neo-liberalisation of urban governance brought concepts such as “participation”, “accountability” and “transparency” to the centre stage in a different form. In 2003, the Delhi government under Sheila Dikshit launched the Bhagidari Scheme on the idea of citizen-local government partnership. This endeavour made RWAs the vehicle of citizens’ participation in urban “good governance”. Bhagidari coincided with the securitisation of the global discourse following 9/11. So security concerns, at times real but often imagined, led Delhi’s RWAs to erect iron gates on public roads. This transformed Delhi independent neighbourhoods into de facto gated communities.
All types of surveillance mechanisms at the RWA-level followed, drawing justification from this securitisation of the cityscape. This is one outcome of neo-liberal policy that fit quite well with the ethos of “self-responsible” communities.
RWAs and atmanirbhar politics of “New India”:
The RWAs of the new high-rises represent the aspirations of the new middle classes of post-liberalisation India. The new apartment complexes they manage are neither modest in objectives nor aspirations. These gated societies are not about shelter but an aspirational affluent lifestyle. They are the spatial expression of what a “good life” is supposed to look like in any neo-liberal order.
Now RWAs are not only about “collective action” on issues that concern all residents, but ensure the promised “good life” to them. Its officeholders are not doing a leisurely retired man’s job, but are engaged in a continuous task to provide a promised lifestyle. This idea of apartment living caters to the new crop of residents, who are typically upwardly-mobile, young, have accessed private technical education and work in private firms.
Housing projects are not selling just real estate, or even houses. Buying an apartment in a project today means buying much more than a physical living area—one is buying into a space with pre-assigned meanings. Project brochures and websites are categorical about this. A range of facilities are promised within the boundaries of a society, from clubhouses, party halls, game rooms, yoga rooms, gymnasiums, tennis courts and “infinite swimming pool”; and a market just outside. The pathways within these societies have illuminated sign boards and manicured greens punctuated by fountains, water bodies and sculptures, even golf carts for those reluctant to walk. One is not just buying real estate but the “right” to realise a life one had aspired for—an aspiration rooted in the neo-liberal sensibility of self-responsible, entrepreneurial individualism with all the freedom of a consumer to “choose”.
This is the Life Atmanirbhar: first, in terms of space, one need not visit the messy, disorganised and insecure world of crime and Covid-19 that exists “outside” its walls. All you could need is provided within the confines of the apartment complex. Second, the state has no role in them. Everything is organised through the RWA, even water and electricity are purchased in bulk and supplied to individual dwelling units.
The RWAs thus become the focal point and central organising principle of urban life, maintaining and providing for all these amenities and services. They represent new urban communities formed mostly by the young demographic productively engaged in the market economy. They generate right kind of demand—the kind that fits into the economic and political thinking of the present government. The demands that can be fulfilled by a well-functioning market system.
Conversely, the “wrong kind” of demand would, for example, be for healthcare—a demand that is targeted at the state. Unsurprisingly, no RWA is asking the state for healthcare even at this moment. They are looking at the market even for that. They are being “self responsible”, so to speak, even turning sections of their premises into isolation centres. They are the real window into an atmanirbhar future that the Prime Minister has envisioned for India.
The author is assistant professor of politics and ethics, IIIT Delhi, and works on urban politics. The views are personal.