The Telegraph
Sunday , May 25 , 2014
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All on the home page

You have just moved into your dream apartment in a well-equipped complex but have no idea who your fellow residents are or whom to contact for any information. Chances are there’s an online community of fellow flat owners out there waiting for you to join them.

Techie Narottam Das didn’t wait to join a community. He created one, even before he had moved into his new home.

“I bought a flat at Srijan Midlands on Jessore Road in 2010, only to realise that the handover would be delayed. But I was determined to shift to my dream house just as I had planned. I knew it was not possible to fight alone and I needed to get in touch with other owners. I created a closed group called Srijan Midlands Community on Facebook and other owners started joining the group. It quickly became a forum to get to know each other, share thoughts and solve issues,” recalled Narottam, the founder administrator of a group that is now 207-strong.

From fixing a leaking pipe to planning for Puja, the Srijan Midlands Community discusses everything and from even as far as Copenhagen or California. Whether it is a picture of the first flowers of winter along the lawn or a moment from the New Year’s Eve party, the FB forum is the place to share it.

Facebook, WhatsApp and other online groups are fast replacing committee meetings in apartment blocks around the city. The Sunrise Estate Facebook page is right now buzzing with planning for a screening of the IPL final. Rajesh Khanna, a resident of the housing complex at Entally, had been waiting eagerly for the announcement of the IPL screening on Facebook. “The whole complex comes together and the camaraderie is high! I remember the year India won the World Cup we got our faces painted before the match began. It was quite an experience.”

For fun and games, there’s Facebook and for everything else there’s WhatsApp for the Sunrise Estate residents. “WhatsApp is our new noticeboard. Everyone has a smartphone, so it is easy to look up WhatsApp for notices. It saves us a lot of paper work too,” said Dev Sarkar, a resident who has been discussing this year’s Durga Puja theme with his neighbours. “There are around 100 families and it is impossible for everyone to meet and discuss. So we share our ideas on WhatsApp.”

Members of the Srijan Midlands Community have created document files within the home page with lists of contacts ready to be accessed anytime. If someone wants to find out who lives in a particular flat on the fourth floor of so and so block, it’s there. Someone else is looking for a carpenter or a painter, there’s a list of choices with reviews of the work done in different apartments. Another flat owner posts a requirement for a parking space on rent for a few months and offers spring up almost immediately.

“I remember sharing the contact number of a man who runs a taxi business on the contact page. It helped other members whenever they needed a taxi to travel, especially to the airport or railway station. The lists have kept growing over time,” Narottam said.

Santanu Syam stays updated about South City, where he owns an apartment, sitting in his office in Mumbai. Besides a Facebook page with more than 600 members, South City was also the first apartment block in the city to subscribe to ApartmentADDA, an online account and management software for housing societies, and recently conducted its association elections entirely online.

“Everything you need is there in one repository. There is a lot of knowledge transfer. Any administrative help you need or query you have, you can post it and within minutes you are flooded with response,” said Santanu, an executive director at Angel Broking Pvt Ltd.

ApartmentADDA is the brainchild of San Banerjee and Venkat Kandaswamy, professionals who quit their jobs to run the portal after their search for an online solution for their own residential block came to nought. “We were part of the management committee of the apartment complex we stayed at in Bangalore. We had to manage a large residential complex with sophisticated facilities and that too on a highly restrained budget and meet everyone’s high expectations. We had first-hand experience of the issues, so we pooled in our skills and devoted ourselves to solving the problems of apartment complexes,” said San.

Residents share moments from their life in the apartments online. (Clockwise from top left) Sindoor Khela at Hiland Park, New Year’s Eve party at Srijan Midlands, Rabindra Jayanti programme at South City and Holi at Diamond City South

The portal now boasts a member list of around 3,000 apartment complexes across India, including several from Calcutta. “Eighty per cent of the subscribers from Calcutta are active users and avail themselves of all the features we offer — communication, facility management, billing and accounting and online payment gateway,” San said.

Each apartment has a common page where bills are posted by the accounts committee. Once a payment is made, the receipt can also be accessed online. “Everything from applying for a car sticker to filling in a form for giving one’s apartment on lease can be done on the site,” said Santanu.

When Santanu needed to register his property, everything was just a click away. “Phone numbers of lawyers, agents… everything was right there. Even the corporation’s notice for hearing on property tax is posted on the site.”

The online community also acts a forum for residents to voice their grievances or arrive at a consensus on everything from the choice of singer for a Noboborsho programme to whether pets should be allowed in the elevator.

At South City Gardens, Facebook, Yahoo Groups and WhatsApp have done what face-to-face meetings couldn’t — get everyone together. “We have 720 flats and at every meeting, one or more of the flat owners would be absent because of other engagements. Now with Facebook and WhatsApp, everyone is aware of what is discussed and can give suggestions too,” said Vishal Khanna, the vice-president of the housing association. When the water tanks at the Tollygunge housing complex had to be cleaned recently, the Facebook page had a notice saying water supply would be unavailable for a few hours.

Nirmal Agarwal, one of the committee members at South City, feels the Facebook group is the best place to announce and discuss events. “Some days back, a member found a floor of one of the towers dirty. He immediately took a picture and uploaded it on Facebook, which helped us take quick action. Facebook was also a great help when we opened a swimming pool. We had posted pictures and details like timings, availability of coaches and almost instantly 400 members signed up.”

Filmmaker Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, also a resident of South City, finds the Facebook group very convenient. “Our Facebook group is very active. It helps both residents staying in Calcutta as well as those living abroad to stay in touch and share ideas. We stay aware all the time about what exactly is happening on the campus.”

Krishna Kant Thakur from Phoenix, Arizona, who has a flat at Srijan Midlands, finds it easy to communicate with fellow flat owners on Facebook. “In an apartment complex with over 300 owners, it is just not possible to keep in touch with all, especially if you are not staying in the complex. I am currently based in the US but thanks to the forum, I feel a part of whatever activity the community is involved in,” he said.

Indrajit Ghosh, who lives in Singapore, would miss out on all that is happening at Diamond City South, the housing estate in Tollygunge Karunamoyee where he owns a flat, till the residents created their own Facebook group three years ago. Now, the IT professional can keep himself abreast at all times, thanks to photographs and videos of celebrations shared by members of the 318-strong group.

If posting pictures of celebrations are a must, it’s definitely not all play and no work. “If someone wants to rent out a flat, all he or she has to do is to post it on the group and everyone can help look for a tenant,” said Kiran Panigrahi of Diamond City South.

During Durga Puja, a part of the parking area at the Tollygunge Karunamoyee complex was used to set up the pandal, so an online notice was posted requesting residents to move their cars temporarily. When the developers installed piped gas in the building, a list was shared on Facebook indicating which flats needed the facility.

Hilanders, the Hiland Park residents’ Facebook group, boasts 363 members. “Hilanders is useful when it comes to tackling our day-to-day problems like water, security and maintenance issues. The Facebook group has helped us act faster,” said Vishal Kapur, the chairman of the housing society.

The ladies at Hiland Park have their own Facebook group with 50-odd members. “We plan cultural programmes and engage in voluntary work to raise funds,” said Aneeta Goel, a resident of Hiland Park and administrator of the Hiland Park Ladies Club Facebook group.

The women of Golf Tower housing complex, too, created their own WhatsApp group last year. “We started Hometurf to discuss about Durga Puja but continued to stay connected even after that. We keep updating each other on everything related to the building. Most of us are busy with work all day, so we can read the messages at our convenience. And what’s more, it’s free!” said Rashmi Sachdev, a businesswoman, who now exchanges greetings with her neighbours on every occasion from Holi to Mother’s Day.

Play to politics, the Sunrise Estate online community dabbles in everything. “We have a table tennis tournament in August and a badminton tournament in December, both of which are planned online,” said Kamruzzaman Choudhury, the secretary of the housing society. “Before the elections, candidates contesting from our constituency visited our campus to campaign and we had posted the timings on Facebook so that anyone who wished could be present.”

Fun is welcome but residents are careful to ensure that discussions don’t get frivolous or malicious. Narottam, along with the other administrator-members of the Srijan Midlands Community, strictly monitor all posts. “An online community is meant to improve, not spoil, the bonhomie we have worked hard to build,” Narottam said.

Does your apartment block have an online group? Tell [email protected]