Rayomand Coins

A license to live

Not many community conflicts between landlords and tenants have a happy ending. So when Parsiana wrote to the chairman of the N. M. Wadia Charities, former Bombay High Court Justice Shahrukh Kathawalla on the afternoon of March 9, 2023 stating we are "keen to talk to you and the (Malcolm) Baug association to write an article” on the "controversy over the Malcolm Baug (MB) leave and license (L&L) renewal agreements,” we were pleasantly surprised to receive his reply the same evening stating, "The subject matter you refer to is now amicably resolved as all 32 licensees have renewed their L&L agreements and therefore there is no controversy.” The Malcolm Baug Zoroastrian Association (MBZA) has still to confirm the statement but there was considerable acrimony and exchange of views on social media prior to the settlement. 
Journalist Nauzer Bharucha at-tacked the Wadia trustees on social media labeling them "high-handed” and "whimsical.” "As many as 30 families residing in Hong Kong House at Malcolm Baug, many of them for over two decades, have been forced to sign patently one-sided agreements,” he alleged. "Some of the traumatized families who met me recently say their rents (license fees) have increased by a shocking five to nine times. Some of the residents are retired, some are on the verge of retirement and others are single mothers and elderly widowed ladies.” In contrast, Bharucha alleged the trustees "live in spacious apartments in south and central Bombay.” Several other social media activists also joined the chorus condemning the trustees. Bharucha’s post was reprinted in the Parsi Junction fortnightly of January 29, published by former Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) chairman Dinshaw Mehta loyalist, Kersi Sethna. (Kathawalla had earned Mehta’s ire when as a judge he foiled his efforts to continuously delay the BPP trusteeship elections last year.)
The Wadia trust secretary Darius Chibber replied to Bharucha’s allegations noting that Bharucha did not disclose that his brother and sister-in-law occupy a flat in Hong Kong House and inquired whether the post was written in Bharucha’s capacity "as a journalist from The Times of India.” Bharucha replied he had acted in his personal capacity and in none of his posts had he taken up his brother’s case "nor have I sought any favors or concessions for him.”
One resident of MB told Parsiana his license fees has been increased three times, but he was "Okay with it, looking at the prevailing rates elsewhere” in the vicinity. The residents had been uniformly paying Rs 7,500 a month plus nominal parking charges. The new levies vary from around Rs 17,000 to even Rs 35,000 plus parking charges. Another occupant said the trustees were sympathetic to the plight of the less well-off residents and had even reduced the amount initially asked for. Relations, however, were strained due to critical social media posts and a rather harsh letter from the Wadia trust, of which Kathawalla was reportedly unaware. At MB, the trust bears 50% of the cost of building repairs. BPP also did so but as its coffers emptied, the trust reneged on its share.
Property matters tend to be con-tentious. Landlords believe they are not earning an adequate return on their investment or maybe even incurring a loss. The tenants cite deficiencies in services, lack of upkeep of the structures and their disinclination or inability to pay more. Even in ownership housing, some residents refuse to pay higher outgoings or sometimes withhold all dues. 
Of all the community baugs, MB is the most spacious. Said to be spread over 37 acres in the northern suburb of Jogeshwari, the colony reportedly houses nearly 800 residents in approximately 60 bungalows and 178 flats. Of the latter, around 70 flats were/are given on a leave and license and the rest on tenancy. The land on which the bungalows stand has been given on lease for 99 years.
The MB has a fire temple, a community hall (built from a donation by Kathawalla who used to reside there), a mini football ground, pavilion, volleyball court and a playground. As columnist Meher Marfatia noted in her article, "The big baug theory” in the now erstwhile DNA newspaper of March 22, 2015, "Malcolm Baug offers a balm to calm the nerves… To be greeted by paths lined with old cottages ringed by garden patches is pure pleasure.”
The land, originally in the Salsette island, "was given by the directors of the East India Company to Mrs David Malcolm in 1827.” David was the brother of Sir John Malcolm who was Governor of Bombay from 1827 to 1830. 
She in turn assigned the property to "Jehangirjee (father of Motlibai) and Navrojee (brother of Jehangirjee and father-in-law of Motlibai) on 23 June 1827 for the then princely sum of Rs 8,500.
"Ultimately the estate devolved upon the two sons of Motlibai, i.e. Nowrojee Maneckji  Wadia and Nusserwanjee Jehangirjee Wadia” and thereafter to the trustees of the N. M. Wadia Charities, notes a souvenir published on the 40th anniversary of the Bai Motlibai Wadia Adaran, a digital copy of which was forwarded to Parsiana by USA based retired journalist, writer and former MB resident, Porus Cooper. The MBZA was formed in 1929.
With fixed rents and old lease income, there is not much scope for increasing revenues. At the same time as community numbers shrink and costs rise, the burgeoning financial burden is shared by fewer and fewer residents. As people age, family incomes fall, who will bear the costs of running such estates? Most trusts appear to live hand to mouth. If the land is leased from governments, lease rents ranging in crores have to be paid. 
As old leases expire, there is inevitably a dispute over how much the new levy should be.  Many leases remain without being renewed, often mired in lengthy and expensive litigation. Properties in hill stations such as Mahableshwar and Matheran, whose leases are due for renewal, languish. Clubs in Bombay caution new members that the lease for their properties has not been renewed and the longevity of their membership is subject to the final outcome. In some cases the government/collector’s office has offered to convert the leased land to ownership for a price. 
Except for Bombay, nearly all the other anjumans elsewhere have unutilized or underutilized residential quarters. Even Poona, once a haven for retirees from Bombay, has vacant flats. So far the BPP has generated income by auctioning charitable flats in their possession. While the intention of the trust settlors never envisioned such a development, auctions permit the tenant who wants to vacate the property to receive 50% of the bid, with the rest going to the BPP. The incoming party is thus able to rent/lease a flat at less than the market price. But what happens when there are no bidders?
Aside from raising rents or levying a service charge, both unpopular as can be seen from the MB imbroglio, how else can trusts increase revenue?
Perhaps the BPP and other trusts along with the various baug associations can take a pointer from the MB settlement and work out a via media that, while not excessively burdening the tenants/licensees, still permits the trusts to be financially viable. 


Villoo Poonawalla