Rayomand Coins

The first steps

The repairs and restoration of the visitors’ toilet blocks at Bombay’s Doongerwadi may not appear a major development but it may be the first time in recent years (to our knowledge) that the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) has managed to find a donor to finance an entire project. After taking months to garner funds from various sources for repairs to the Gamadia Boys’ Hostel in Tardeo and the Seth Jamshedji Jejeebhoy Godavara (Gamadia) Agiary in the Fort area, the commonplace, dilapidated and neglected toilet blocks found two willing donors. One being the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly representative from the Malabar Hill constituency, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, and the other, a noted Parsi trust, the Maneckbai P. B. Jeejeebhoy Trust Fund. Knowing the sensitivity of public funds being used for a community project on hallowed grounds, the trustees after some debate opted for the Parsi trust.

Till now, donors steered clear of the BPP. The image of the once apex Bombay trust lay in tatters. Few wanted to be publicly associated with the cantankerous trustees who never tired of trading insults with each other, that too in writing.

In 1976, Parsiana had carried extracts of the sheras, jottings made by the trustees on trust papers/files circulated to them in a black box (see "The Pateti Papers," Parsiana, December 1976-January 1977). There were no emails in those days. Compared to the scorn heaped on one another in recent times, the past trustees’ remarks appear genteel and civilized. A controversy arose over whether member of the Legislative Assembly Aloo Chibber should be sent a letter of thanks for her reported intercession in getting Parsi New Year declared a public holiday in August 1976. BPP trustee B. K. Boman-Behram was not inclined while his co-trustee and onetime electoral ally Dr Nelie Noble favored doing so. Boman-Behram termed Noble’s jottings justifying the proposal "puerile" and claimed that "no one can believe such a story except a person at the level of intelligence of Miss Noble." She in return termed him "malicious and vindictive" and his statements "illogical and irrelevant verbosity, a sign of old age...I shall not stoop to use the language of cheap rustics and the so-called educated illiterates... He is just a Lilliput posing as a giant." The trustees were aghast at their comments being made public. BPP trustee Jamshed Guzder inquired from Parsiana during a lunch break at a Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI) meeting what purpose publishing the sheras served. Boman-Behram, standing by, also looked dismayed. BPP trustee Eruch Desai, meeting the Parsiana editor on the pavement outside the prestigious law firm of which he was a partner, said he had got his co-trustees to agree to destroy the sheras, so the blot would be removed from the BPP records forever.

No such regrets are expressed today, only annoyance that the emails have been published. In the last 10 or more years since extracts from the trustees’ email exchanges have been published in Parsiana, the erstwhile Metro Junction and the contemporary Parsi Junction, the derogatory and ofttimes libelous communications continue unabated. It is as though the trustees are cocooned from reality, indifferent or oblivious to the tremendous damage their utterances are causing the nearly 345-year-old, once revered, institution.

Another deterrent to donors opening their purse strings is the lack of transparency. The trust does not publish its annual accounts. There is considerable confusion about their financial well-being. On the one hand, BPP chairman Yazdi Desai claims they are a loss making institution and even wrote so to the government to justify claiming exemption from paying the legally mandated bonus to employees. On the other hand, the BPP balance sheet published in the Parsi Junction of December 15, 2019 shows a profit of Rs 3.72 crores for the year ended March 2019 and Rs 2.75 crores for the prior year. So how did Desai substantiate his loss making claim to the government? Was it just a ploy to browbeat the workers’ union? And can one play fast and loose with the financial creditworthiness of the trust? Some trustees claim the relevant surplus is credited to the Wadia baugs’ accounts and cannot be spent on other causes without the Wadia Committee’s consent. Others dispute this bifurcation of the two, stating statutorily they are one.

Aside from the nasty emails there also appears to be a bit of arbitrariness in the functioning of trustees, especially Desai’s. His co-trustees accuse him of withholding information, taking decisions without consulting them. One has witnessed the acrimonious exchanges among the trustees at the FPZAI and even the Global Working Group meets. Desai also tried to remove his co-trustees from the once all-India body, now more a south Gujarat association. Bouncers were hired to keep five trustees out, but they finally entered. Desai further attempted to move the FPZAI office to the same building as the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) office, a traditionalist body he and others founded and which he now heads. Desai alleged some of his co-trustees were rude to the FPZAI office bearers. The shift was subsequently abandoned but not without considerably damaging the image of both the BPP and the FPZAI.

Despite the shortcomings, the trust is fortunate that those they represent are charitable minded. Overlooking the perceived failings, in the long run Parsis and Zoroastrians want to ensure the well-being of the community and its institutions. But there is another troubling factor. How long will the money last? How many earning members are there in the community and how many dependents? If the corpuses of trusts are not augmented periodically, the interest earned on investments will fail to keep pace with inflation. While few grudge spending money on religious objectives, are there sufficient funds for social welfare? Doongerwadi alone has an annual deficit of around three crores. And this is only in Bombay. Less than two bodies a day are consigned to the Bombay dakhmas which as Desai states are "falling apart."

Most of the agiaries see declining footfalls. Priests are few and far between. The 50 or so fire temples in Bombay once catered to around 70,000 Parsis. Today the Parsi population is closer to half that figure with many aged members physically unable to venture from their homes. Those living in houses without lifts can end up being prisoners in their flats at the mercy of other family members, friends or caring and able neighbors.

The community has looked after many of its institutions and beneficiaries well. But how long can they continue to do so?


Villoo Poonawalla