Rayomand Coins

Martyrs or misfits?

He had all the qualities one would desire from a trustee of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP): intelligence, intellect, ability, empathy, compassion, a sound knowledge of the law and an understanding of finance. On top of that he was a wealthy man from an old, established family. On his death people said he was the last of the Parsi sethias. An undated condolence resolution passed by the BPP board and staff referred to "the wealth of his time, talent and governance skills." So why did Muncherji (Munchi) Cama opt to prematurely resign from the once hallowed community trust? And that too after fighting a keenly contested election? Was the institution at fault? His co-trustees?

Many competent and dedicated people step down from organizations for a variety of reasons. But when the office is an elected one, the odds of resigning are less. The BPP record, however, tells a different story. Noted lawyer Shiavax Vakil was hounded out of office in 1975. This followed the public outcry over his statement on the pathetic state of corpses in the Towers of Silence at Doongerwadi.

A little earlier, noted lawyer P. P. Khambatta had also resigned, tiring of the squabbles on the board. Industrialist Naoroji Godrej, disillusioned with the bickering on the BPP board, resigned as a trustee after a short stint. Indian Administrative Service officer and former municipal commissioner of Bombay, Jamsheed Kanga stepped down before his term expired citing his other commitments and responsibilities as the reason. In 2006 four other trustees resigned stating they could not work with another trustee. They subsequently withdrew their resignations. The list goes on.

Trustees do not resign because they cannot stomach a fight. When Cama was asked how the other trustees were treating him, his standard response was, "Ask me how I’m treating them!" More often people resign when they believe their presence on the board does not serve the purpose for which they sought office.

Resignations at the BPP took place under the old archaic election system as well as under universal adult franchise. In 2011 when Noshir Dadrawala was hounded out by former BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta, with the active or passive connivance of his five other co-trustees, a disastrous power struggle ensued. BPP trustee Yazdi Desai’s wife, Anahita, opted to stand for election. Mehta, sensing a threat to his hegemony on the seven-member board, supported Cama’s candidacy as did activist and later BPP trustee Kersi Randeria. The bitterness that ensued between the Desais and Mehta remains to this day.

If the election system is not at fault, what is? Firstly there is the duration of a trustee’s term. From 10 years earlier, the tenure was reduced to seven, with the total number of years a trustee could serve restricted to 21. If the number of years is shortened to maybe four, those holding office may be more inclined to complete their stint. Trustees would know they are accountable and answerable to the public in a shorter time frame. The 21-year limit could be lowered to 12, or approximately three terms. Annual reports, budgets, accounts would have to be published and disseminated as is the practice elsewhere. These measures will pressure the office bearers to perform, rather than dissipate their energies in partisan, internecine squabbles.

If we look to the other anjumans in India and the associations abroad we seldom see the degree of rancor as in the BPP. If differences exist they are usually papered over. Cooler heads intervene to bring about rapprochement. Litigation costs abroad are colossal and would bankrupt most. Office terms are shorter, limits are set on the number of times a person can serve.

The contrast between the Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI) and the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America to which we have often alluded, is a good study in contrasts. No one association or individual dominates in North America. The relationship is largely between equals, though the associations with more members may enjoy greater clout. Groups with small numbers qualify as corresponding members. This would prevent the disproportionate weightage that exists in the FPZAI where an anjuman with less than 10 members/residents has the same voting rights as the one with over 1,000. In India, the FPZAI was reduced to a rubber stamp of the former BPP chairman. The FPZAI bylaws and rules have been amended to ensure the BPP chairman alone can head the all-India body.

Unlike the BPP, overseas associations and the anjumans in other parts of India are not saddled with vast real estate. The BPP trustees function more like landlords than philanthropic visionaries. Most of their disputes center around money or property.

The latest ruckus over which much angst has been expressed on social media is the use of Doongerwadi lands to lay municipal water pipes. Whether new pipes are being installed or old ones replaced or temporary pipes being made permanent, is unclear. Earlier, the trustees differed on the Rs 750 service charge levied on BPP flats; residents of 2,530 out of 2,600 BPP-managed flats had paid the full levy and 45 partially, only 25 had not paid the increase since 2017, noted BPP trustee Viraf Mehta in the Parsi Junction of June 27, 2021. But still the majority trustees voted to fully waive the charges effective September 2020, thereby further depleting the trust’s exhausted coffers. Intriguingly 1,600 or so Wadia managed flat occupants continue to pay the charges.

Even the trusteeship elections are in limbo. The majority trustees using the excuse of the pandemic scuttled the scheduled May 23 elections for two seats. When the election will now be held is unknown. One potential trusteeship candidate Hoshi Jal, honorary secretary of the Cusrow Baug United Sports and Welfare League noted the BPP was functioning with a "30% vacancy." A candidate who had considered standing for the May election privately voiced his concern over the BPP’s financial position and how the trust was going to manage. Cama was also concerned the trust’s tainted image may impair his reputation.

If capable people are dissuaded from contesting for elective office, the voters’ choices are limited. If competent trustees resign prematurely, the community is the loser.

The resignations are not only the result of an individual’s unwillingness to wage a losing battle but also of structural infirmities. If the system is not reformed, many qualified and capable individuals will continue to find themselves misfits on the BPP board. 

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If spirit of service and uplifting one's community predominates, lot of ego can be minimized which appears to be the main culprit.
- Sunnu Golwalla
- 26-Jul-2021

If spirit of service and uplifting one's community predominates, lot of ego can be minimized which appears to be the main culprit.
- Sunnu Golwalla
- 26-Jul-2021

This is an excellent analysis of the currently prevailing situation at the BPP. I am certain there are some Anjumans in India where such a climate prevails. Individuals like Cama, who are thoroughly professional in their approach to work, find themselves to be misfits in such organisations. I am aware of many such individuals who,having tried to change the functioning of he organisations they were elected to, chose to opt out.<br><br>Yezad Kapadia
- Rati Y Kapadia
- 23-Jul-2021


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