Mumbai housing societies gear up to tackle third wave of the pandemic

Spike in COVID-19 cases puts the spotlight back on role of RWAs in strategising for the pandemic by monitoring movement of residents

As Mumbai prepares for a third wave, housing societies watch closely as it marks the beginning of yet another harrowing time.

The spike in COVID-19 numbers even before Ganesh Chaturthi festivities could begin, has rung warning bells in the city. As of 8 September, Mumbai had 50 buildings and only one informal settlement actively sealed with about 2,075 people considered high risk for having come into contact with a COVID-19 patient.

Another 530 people had tested positive in a single day.

The resurgence of the virus is being witnessed with nervousness, especially in large residential complexes where a number of residents and staff move in and out of the premises daily. The role of these societies is crucial now as their response to the rise in infected people is greatly determined by how they execute their strategies to monitor the entry and exist of people – from workers to residents to deliveries – through office-bearers.

How are building complexes handling COVID-19?

Some societies like Neptune CHS with over 340 flats have already asked their domestic workers and drivers to submit negative RTPCR reports, test conducted not before 30 days. “Though the BMC has stopped insisting on RTPCR test for domestic workers and drivers every 15 days now, we continue to urge our residents to get these tests done on a regular basis, ” said Rahul Tangri, chairman of Neptune CHS. “Eighty per cent of our adults have already been vaccinated. Our building staff including our housekeeping, electrician and plumber staff have been provided accommodation within our building premises since the onset of the pandemic. People without masks are not allowed into our society. Four oximeters scan the temperature at our gates. Thanks to our sustained efforts, only 18 people from five families tested COVID-19 positive in our building in last 1.5 years,” he added.

These restrictions are also contextualized by the widely celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi, that, this year, is altered by the third wave panic. “The police were very strict in issuing permissions this year to hold community Ganesh festival celebration. It was issued only after multiple rounds of inspections of the society by different officials. Only 22 people can stand in the earmarked spaces in the pandal to ensure social distancing,” said Tangri. 

Other societies like Oasis, in Kandivali, with about 350 families residing, have already issued a strict list of do’s and don’ts for their members and visitors to be followed. “We have about 150 domestic workers and about 25-odd security guards and another 20-odd housekeeping staff working in various shifts in our society. All of them have been asked to submit copies of their vaccination certificates or a negative RTPCR test with the security to be allowed entry into the society. In case a member tests positive, their support staff will not be allowed inside the society for a week’s time,” explains William Robert, secretary of Oasis CHS. 

The onset of the third wave places the onus on the hands of a select few, potentially re-opening the debate on who is accountable in case they fail to meet their social obligations.

Read more: Op-ed: Will COVID-19 teach us to respect and value labour more?

Where do a society’s powers in an epidemic come from?

As per the BMC circular issued on April 14, 2021, the BMC has conferred powers vested with it under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 enabled under the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to authorize committee members to check spread of COVID-19 within their premises.

What if a member refuses to follow restrictions?

A housing society can warn and even penalize members who fail to follow appropriate behaviour (like failing to wear masks) instituted by the society. They can be fined Rs 1000, but not exceeding Rs 5000 per annum for failure to adhere to COVID-19 protocols.

Ramesh Prabhu, chairman of the Maharashtra Societies Welfare Association that represents about 30,000 societies in Mumbai, says that such action would be construed as legal since it would be deemed as a breach of rules decided by the society – as determined u/s of 164 (a &b) of the Model Bye-laws for CHS, 2014.

However, if a member fails to obey the restrictions placed entirely, then the society can lodge a complaint with the local police station as violation to follow norms laid under of the Disaster Management Act, which would be considered as a criminal offence, he says.

What happens if a society fails to implement COVID-19 restrictions?

A society can be penalized for Rs 10,000 if it fails to implement restrictions as mentioned in their guidelines. The fine amount can be increased if the offence is repeated, a BMC circular mentions. 

View of the top of Mumbai buildings
Housing societies hold the responsibility of containing the spread of COVID-19. Representational Image.

Is it right for the society to be penalized or held accountable?  

Ramesh says that the entire society cannot be made scapegoats for the fault of a few residents. The BMC has issued clear guidelines about ensuring that families in close contact with COVID-19 patients stay quarantined within their micro-containment zones.

As of now, an entire floor of patients is sealed for seven days. An entire building is sealed only if five or more patients are detected.

“What is happening is that the government is making society office bearers as the scapegoat, which is not acceptable. Let them take the services of the society committee members as a facilitator but they cannot be held liable. The society could point out to the errant defaulter and let the penalty be levied on that individual,” Ramesh says.

Yogesh Sagar, BJP MLA from Charkop, said that while holding a society accountable for implementing restrictions is fine, penalizing the society is not since “office-bearers are not paid employees.” 

“People seem least bothered. They don’t seem to realize that the virus has not yet gone.  I have already started receiving invitations to visit Ganesh at homes. And now, soon after Ganesh festival when the Shraddha period gets over, the wedding season should start by October and that could be another super spreader. Already I see everything open everywhere,” said Yogesh Radhakrishna, a resident of Juhu.

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