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India’s New Mini-dictators

With greater powers, committees of housing colonies are arbitrarily enforcing various bans in the time of the pandemic. The middle class has little option but to fall in line. By Neeraj Mishra

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At a multi-storey gated complex in Hyderabad, residents fought over a father playing basketball with his son inside the campus. In gated communities in Raipur, arguments ensue over allowing in maids. And in Delhi, Noida and Gurugram, RWAs have exerted control over the movements of everyone with a list of dos and don’ts longer than war-time controls. It’s the same story across all cities. Committees and RWAs have taken control of middle class lives while the poor continue to struggle with either reverse migration or prolonged unemployment.

 The irony is that both the middle class and lower income groups have celebrated the thaali bajao and diya jalao appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with equal fervour in their own inimitable styles. The middle class did so from their balconies and the poor in festive processions on roads. However, the anti-corona efforts of the government have been absorbed and displayed by the middle class more than anyone else. Modi’s addresses have also given the impression that the India that needs to fight corona lives in homes with balconies and which have electricity and piped water.

 A flurry of administrative orders by district administrations all over the country has also cemented the impression that it’s an urban-centric war against an unseen enemy. The Raipur SSP passed an order after the extension of the lockdown on April 14 that made all RWA presidents and secretaries special police officers till May 3 to control and report on government-mandated lockdown guidelines. No one, of course, reported on the cracker bursting and Diwali-like celebrations in all towns across India as if a war had already been won against the virus.

In one gated colony in Gurugram’s Phase 1, an ex-army officer who heads the RWA passed arbitrary orders for residents to come together periodically to sing patriotic songs from their balconies—he provides a list of these and in which order they should be sung along with precise timings. Other apartment complexes in Mumbai and elsewhere have banned any resident from going for a walk inside the complex even if there is a jogging track. These are the new mini-dictators with their mini-empires.   

Section 188, a long-forgotten section of the IPC which calls for a fine of Rs 200 and a maximum prison term of one month, has suddenly become the war cry of district authorities. It relates to citizens not following an order of the government. It has been made non-bailable in most places. The government also announced the intention of extending the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005, to the entire country. DMA is usually applied in times of natural disasters like cyclones and earthquakes in limited zones, but it is the first instance of it being applied across the country. Under DMA, the powers of administrations are multiplied several times. The lockdown itself is a result of the application of DMA. Under Sections 35, 62 and 72, the central government can issue orders overriding any Act. It effectively concentrates all the powers in the hands of the prime minister as the head of the National Disaster Management Authority. Then it flows down to state and district DMA authorities headed by the CM and DM.

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, was promulgated to contain the bubonic plague in Bombay but has been used several times against the spread of cholera and malaria in the early decades after Independence. It was amended in April through an ordinance after there were frequent attacks on doctors and health workers. It has provisions for a prison sentence of seven years for those found guilty of attacking health workers.

All this information was made available to citizens through mobile phone apps. In this time of national distress, the mobile phone and WhatsApp groups have emerged as everyone’s clear favourite. Most gated communities had stopped newspaper vendors from entering the colonies and the police administration prevented other vendors from roaming the streets.

 In the eagerness to follow administrative orders, RWAs took over. Every gated colony and RWA has a closed WhatsApp group now and it has become a battleground of ideas, informative posts and threats. Every order issued by the home ministry or state government has reached almost every group like newspaper PDFs.

 The worst-case scenario is that municipal acts which have never been followed either in letter or spirit have become the new war cry. Spitting can cost one Rs 100 and roaming without a mask, Rs 200. Shops and establishments not registered with municipalities can’t open even during the regulation time of four hours almost everywhere. WhatsApp groups also do not have any dearth of demonstrative videos of lockdown violators getting caned. Most involve lower middle class people out on work or hunting for rations or vegetables. But they sent chills down middle class spines and serve as warnings. Of course, we also have the unique ability to laugh at ourselves in the worst of times, so sharing of jokes is an acceptable by-product.

The thali bajao programme was a clear evidence about how WhatsApp has taken a hold over the middle class. There are roughly 40 crore WhatsApp users in the country. Apart from its political use, it was also used for the first time to spread awareness about lockdown orders. Everyone had access to the following:

  • What is supposed to be done or not done during the lockdown
  • Where one is allowed to move with precautions
  • List of hospitals, shops, establishments which will be open
  • Which trades are allowed to be plied as restrictions ease
  • Containment zones and restrictions on pillion riding, traffic routes, etc.

As middle class India received these instructions on TVs and mobiles, it largely followed them while worrying about the next salary. The home ministry’s order about full pay to all employees during the lockdown has been challenged in the Supreme Court, but almost no employer has followed it in spirit, citing various compulsions. The fear of losing jobs to corona is real and pink slips are being circulated and being noted like never before.

Even as strict enforcement of the lockdown was seen everywhere, in Chhattisgarh a piquant situation arose in the Revenue Board after it became apparent that certain government offices would open after April 20 even if there was only one-third strength. Lawyers appro­ached the president of the revenue board, CK Khaitan, requesting him to defer it till May 4 when the second round of lockdown ends. Their plea was that even if the Board starts functioning, clients would not be able to reach Raipur bec­ause of the ban on inter-district travel. Khaitan accepted the plea but also felt that the way forward was to connect all the courts in Bilaspur, Jagdalpur and Raipur through video conferencing so that the revenue system would not suffer. That may be the way forward for our civil and criminal court system as well. RWAs too need an infusion of humaneness in the time of Covid-19.

Lead Picture: UNI

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