In Focus

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

By Nivedita Pal

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown during his address to the nation on 25 March 2020, citizens knew their lives are going to change, in ways more than one. With restrictions affecting every aspect of life - food, movement, security and housing - the lockdown has also diverted all resources towards controlling the pandemic.

On the one hand, 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, on the other, 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.

Here goes a report 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 -

Reports of increasing number of COVID-19 positive cases among 'foreign-return' members led many housing societies to establish new, self-made rules. In many societies, members who returned from UK, USA, Dubai, Spain, Italy, etc., were asked to report their travel history and details to the managing committees collecting this information without any direct or delegated authority to do so. In the lockdown, several residents associations have become self-styled guardians and started issuing guidelines and restrictions apparently to ensure ‘compliance’ with the national lockdown restrictions imposed by the government.

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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