Rayomand Coins

Chary of charity?

The purpose of most charitable trusts created by Zoroastrians was to assist the economically, socially and politically disadvantaged. These beneficiaries were viewed as people who had little say in public life. The government tries to assist the weakest of the weak but that often leaves those marginally above the poverty line bereft of assistance. Individuals step in to fill the gap. Parsi philanthropy has therefore been in the forefront of community development.

In 1932, the Sir Ratan Tata Trust commissioned Irish member of parliament and academician, S. F. Markham to do a study to gauge the effectiveness of community charities in relieving poverty, infant mortality, medical health, unemployment, primary education, etc, and how the functioning of trusts could be strengthened. While submitting his report he unsparingly wrote that Parsi philanthropy "due to its lack of common sense" had produced a community of "professional beggars" who went around from trust to trust seeking funds, often for the same alleged purpose. His devastating report resulted in the creation of the Liaison Committee to oversee and coordinate the efforts of various trusts. Social workers were employed to check on the bona fides of applicants. That institution sadly has fallen into decrepitude.

One objective of charity is to enable those assisted to help others in turn. But that end is not always achieved. Instead, community funds meant for the needy are being used to subsidize the more well off and to support religious institutions. When three Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustees audaciously waived the service charge on occupants of BPP baugs (see "Reversal of fortune," Parsiana, August 21-September 6, 2020) the poor were the losers.

The Rs 1.65 crore loss will not reverse the fortunes of the once apex trust’s dismal finances. But the fallout of their knee-jerk decision conveys to the general public the erroneous impression that the impoverished trust is flush with funds.

There is also confusion over the number of flats the BPP manages. The figures given by two trustees to Parsiana puts the number at around 4,200. But BPP Review published by the trustees about a decade ago had put the figure at 5,566 flats in 485 buildings! What happened to the missing 1,300 plus flats? Which figure is fictional? Or were 1,300 plus flats disposed of? Will the trust explain why the community was or is being misled? These kinds of discrepancies and unanswered questions lessen public trust in institutions, leave aside one whose reputation is already in tatters.

The other drain on finances is the 55-acre Doongerwadi property. Due to the stubbornness of the trustees and that of the high priests, burial and cremation are not permitted on the estate, only dakhmenashini. They also claim the land use is restricted to disposal in the Towers of Silence. This is a misconception. The government and the courts, if approached, would permit an alternate system. By restricting usage, donations that may have come from those opting for alternative modes of disposal are lacking.

If the trust could afford to do without the funds it would be understandable. But it is not acceptable when the Doongerwadi deficit of two to four crore rupees annually is financed by delaying, if not denying, payment to medical, educational, third child schemes, mobed amelioration, 50% share of building repairs, unpaid vendors’ bills, etc.

Is the BPP’s priority the living or the dead? The nonsensical notion that the BPP was created to look after the dakhmas and subsequently everything else has no basis in historical records. There is as much truth in this statement as there is in the sugar in the milk myth or the belief that if our numbers drop below a certain level in the Government of India census, Parsis will be classified as a "tribe." And talk of generating funds from stalled projects is fanciful, more so allowing for the internal quarrels and one-upmanship among the trustees.

Philanthropy and philanthropists may have their shortcomings. These can be countered by a vigilant society that ensures that those entrusted to manage the assets function democratically.

Rob Reich, a professor of Political Science at Stanford University and author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better published in 2018 stated in an interview with Stanford News on December 3, 2018, "The starting point of my analysis is that big philanthropy is an exercise in power — the direction of the private assets of wealthy people towards some public influence. In a democratic society, whenever we see the exercise of power in a public setting, the response it deserves is not gratitude but scrutiny."

In his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas, a former Mc-Kinsey consultant and columnist for The New York Times, argues that rather than rely on scraps from the winners (donors), we must take on the gruelling democratic work of building more robust, egalitarian institutions and truly changing the world. "Most of what I am trying to do is to convince the general public to stop outsourcing the changing of the world to plutocratic elites," he said in an interview with the Financial Times on February 1, 2019.

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review of May 2016, Karl Zinsmeister, author of The Almanac of American Philanthropy takes a more charitable view of givers and the gifts. "The genius of the philanthropic mechanism is that it accepts people just as they are — kind impulses, confusion and vanities, wishes of all sorts swirling together in the usual human jumble — and helps them do wondrous things, even when they are not saints." He also quotes economists Zoltan Acs and Ronnie Phillips as stating, "Philanthropy is part of the implicit social contract that continuously nurtures and revitalizes economic prosperity."

Zinsmeister notes in conclusion, "Other academic work has shown that offering aid can actually make the giver healthier — lowering blood pressure, stress, illness and mortality... Generous practices actually create enhanced personal well-being."

If the trustees were to follow some of these precepts, both they and the community would benefit greatly.


Villoo Poonawalla