Rayomand Coins

A lack of trust

While the government remained apathetic and the Supreme Court unmoved, the major institutions that offered succor to the millions of migrants during the ill conceived and hastily mandated lockdown were the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in India. In appreciation of their contribution, the government rewarded them by increasing legislative and bureaucratic strangleholds on their functioning. On September 20, 2020, the Lok Sabha passed The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment (FCRA) Bill 2020 and the Rajya Sabha, the following day. The legislation, critics say, is not to regulate but control NGOs. The objective is to silence any criticism NGOs may express. Without FCRA registration a trust cannot receive donations from overseas.

The Geneva based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) condemned the act stating "the legislation fails to comply with India’s international legal obligations and constitutional provisions to respect and protect the rights to freedom of associations, expression, and freedom of assembly." The ICJ legal and policy director termed the legislation "another attempt to destabilize the functioning of democratic institutions in India."

On September 29, Amnesty International halted their activities in India after the government froze their bank accounts. The human rights activist group claimed they were being subjected to an "incessant witch-hunt." The government, as expected, denied the allegation but the NGO has long been harassed, even by previous regimes, for taking up the cause of civil liberties.

Allowing that the Parsi community in India is the recipient of large funds from abroad, especially from the Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hongkong, Canton and Macao plus numerous other organizations and individuals, this continued effort by the government to stifle the functioning of trusts, foundations and other non-profits is worrisome. The single largest monetary pledge of USD 22.5 million (Rs 166 crores) to the community was by Pervin and Jal Shroff of Hong Kong. They intended to create a cosmopolitan hospital from whose revenue The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital’s (PHG) losses were to be offset. The PGH serves the Parsi community in Bombay, especially its financially weaker sections. That the magnanimous offer was thwarted by a handful of community dissenters is another matter. But at least the regulatory hurdles at that time did not negate the couple’s generous initiative. However, as the bureaucratic obstacles increase, many donors’ philanthropic ardor may be dampened.

Trusts like The WZO Trust Funds and others are to be commended for successfully handling innumerable FCRA bureaucratic hurdles and requirements. Without such NGOs the community would be hard pressed to raise financial resources from abroad for various projects. A Congress party member of parliament was quoted by the online news and analysis portal, Scroll, as stating the FCRA will target minority communities (read Muslim and Christian). Whether the statement is politically motivated or factual, there is little doubt that the NGOs victimized will be from among these two communities. Minorities do not comprise the core constituency of the ruling, right wing, Hindu nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party.

For any violation, FCRA registration may be canceled for "185 days or such further period...as may be specified." As the Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy program director, legal and corporate social responsibility compliance, Noshir Dadrawala noted, "To call this (Bill) draconian would be an understatement." Dadrawala is also a trustee of the community’s largest public trust, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP). Among the many clauses in the new Bill is one that states administrative expenses of a trust must be curtailed to 20% instead of the present 50%. In an article in mid-day dated September 22 he is quoted as stating the law "will have a detrimental impact on charitable institutions in India. (It) will be a major blow to organizations in terms of salaries, professional fees, utility bills, travel and other such expenditure."

Even without all the legislative restrictions, trusts have a hard time living up to their ideals and achieving their stated objectives. In many community organizations, trusteeship seats either remain vacant and/or the trustees are too old and infirm to perform their onerous duties. There is a dearth of able-bodied talent to replace those who are unable to function or step down. An aging, dwindling population as well as the preference/bias for male office-bearers only adds to the shortage of capable individuals. Aside from the considerable time spent managing a trust, especially a large one like the BPP, there is the added level of stress. A competent and trained staff lessens the burden but the ultimate responsibility vests with the trustees. Adding to the woes are critics who not only harp on any shortcomings but impute motives. One often hears BPP trustees moan that many talented individuals refrain from standing for trusteeship because they do not want to indulge in all the backbiting that goes on, not only between beneficiaries and trustees but among the trustees themselves.

One advantage the BPP has over many other Parsi trusts is that the trustees’ term is limited to 21 years with each stint in office lasting seven years. In nearly all the other Parsi trusts, trustees are appointed for life. So many fine institutions founded with the best of intentions and adequate resources end up in ruin on account of incompetent, indifferent or adamant trustees. Ill-intentioned or cantankerous trustees drive away dedicated ones. One reason why so many assets in the mofussil areas have been encroached upon, lie dilapidated, unused and are often sold for a song is because the trustees did not anticipate the repurcussions a dwindling Parsi population would cause.

With such a limited pool of talent, it is safe to assume that most of the community’s assets will continue to be lost either through attrition, neglect or chicanery. On account of suspected or genuine dishonesty many creditable trusts face resistance when attempting to liquidate property to generate funds. The end result is that the asset is finally lost to the community with negligible or no returns.

At The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI) meet in Ahmedabad on July 21, 2019 FPZAI president Yazdi Desai alleged that Rs 30 lakh in cash had been taken by a FPZAI representative for sale of the aramgah land in Dharwar. The deal never went through and when the seller asked for his deposit to be returned, the issue of the cash amount was raised. Everyone assumes somebody on the seller’s side is on the take. Hence the rush to block all sales. The end result is for all to see.

A sound, competent, honest trustee is an institution’s greatest asset. Many trustees are deadweights, laggards, attention seekers and more often than not, liabilities. A trustee who dominates can destroy a trust. She or he will invariably appoint yes-people in lieu of competent ones. What a trust needs is not a dictator but a team leader, one who draws the best out from others. The new FCRA regulations have just made life harder for the trusts.

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Just mentioning that in Karachi (I can only speak of the city I know about and live in) honesty of trustees is a 'given' and in that we feel very grateful.<br><br>BUT leadership is lacking maybe due to restrictive environment in which we live, and thereby not trained to think or act boldly, to make changes when required.
- Sunnu Golwalla
- 08-Oct-2020


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