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Realign or resign?

The tumultuous turn of events in the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) have all the makings of a political potboiler. No sooner has the community recovered from one upheaval, than another more dramatic one, takes place. And all of these come as total surprises to an unsuspecting electorate.

This is due to the functioning of the BPP trustees being shrouded in secrecy. Aside from the occasional leaks of emails and snippets of news, one has no means of knowing what transpires in the boardroom on 209 Dadabhai Naoroji Road. Even annual accountability meetings, though promised by most candidates seeking office, are seldom held. The present board has not called a single such gathering. BPP accounts are not published for distribution.

In public life, elected officials resign when they are accused of, or are found guilty of, moral, sexual and financial impropriety. Careers have been ruined. Top bosses have stepped down in disgrace. Companies have had to down shutters after investors and the public expressed outrage. But the BPP trustees appear to resign for totally different reasons, often an overbearing co-trustee/s or chairperson.

There appears to be little recourse for venting one’s frustration or correcting the course of events except by resigning. One realizes the trustees serve in an honorary capacity and do so with a motive to better the lot of their co-religionists. They spend long evening hours at least once a week, if not twice, in meetings that may go on till around midnight. And outside of that they meet individuals, visit institutions, consult with lawyers, attend court hearings, grace public functions, and so on. Resigning as a BPP trustee does not entail any loss of income (they often spend from their own pockets) but lessens headache and heartache, and frees time for other activities, family and friends.

So with such honorable motives, why does the system fail? Resignations have become a de jure way of handling stress. Some have stepped down because they felt their presence on the board was a hindrance to the institution. Noted solicitor and legal advisor to the house of Tatas, Shiavax Vakil stepped down in 1975 after his public utterances on the dismal state that prevailed within the Towers of Silence created a storm. But he did so on the condition the other trustees agree to elect industrialist Jamshed Guzder in his stead. They all consented but Dr Nelie Noble backtracked and supported fellow Pundolite lawyer Jimmy Shroff. Guzder won handsomely. Years later when Guzder did not seek reelection when industrialist Naoroji Godrej decided to contest against him, BPP trustee Jamsheed Kanga stepped down shortly thereafter so Guzder could be reelected to fill his vacancy. However, due to internal politicking, Godrej resigned soon thereafter.

When four trustees resigned together in 2006, they cited their inability to work with their co-trustee Dinshaw Mehta. After a lengthy and expensive legal battle they were reinstated. Noshir Dadrawala resigned in 2011 because Mehta, then chairman and all his co-trustees ganged up against him. Muncherji Cama resigned in 2015 citing faults in the working of the trust. He was reinstated after a legal battle that lasted over two years and cost both parties over a crore of rupees in legal fees. Dadrawala submitted his resignation again this April citing his inability to work with co-trustees Yazdi Desai and Kersi Randeria. "Three times in the last one year I have convinced him not to resign," stated Randeria. "Noshir is a dear friend."

Dadrawala addressed his resignation letter to "My once fellow trustees" instead of the chairman noting, "that is a position he holds by ‘default’ (senior most) and not because he deserves it. This is not the first time that he has humiliated me in front of others, including staff and the trustees. His high-handed, arbitrary actions are by now well-known to everybody. I have been observing the politics and intrigues for a long, long time...

"There is no time management. Sitting for meetings till 12.30 a.m. is not something to gloat about. It indicates total lack of time management skills on the part of the chairman who cannot control warring colleagues. Good governance is a joke. There is a system laid down for trustees wanting to study files, but the chairman is not only exempt but happily takes and keeps files and papers at home and the ‘righteous ones’ seem okay with that. There are private ‘durbars’ on Fridays at the BPP and other locations on holidays. For what? With whose authority?

"This board takes one step forward and four steps backward. Politics, pure and shameless politics, is the order of the day. There is total lack of professionalism. It is a rule of ‘might is right’ and no respect or room for alternate opinion. It is my way or the highway! There can never be progress with a board that is so opinionated, arrogant, egoistic and divided. I know many will be quick to say, ‘Stay in and fight.’ The question is fight whom? Friends? Enemies? Colleagues?"

Till Dadrawala’s letter is addressed to the chairman, the resignation will not be valid as per the BPP election scheme (see "The letter and the law," page 34). In an email on April 30 Dadrawala acknowledged messages received from well-wishers expressing concern over his resignation. As he will be traveling abroad shortly for 10 days or so he stated he would decide on the issue "keeping the best interest of the trust and community in mind." He did not wish to foist a second, separate election on the community.

From Dadrawala’s lament one can sense the individual trustee has little recourse to address his or her grievances. The chairperson who should be holding his/her colleagues together is either incapable or unwilling to do so. Both Mehta and Desai have proved to be divisive. The majority faction rules the roost and the minority can either go to court to oppose their policies or take to social media to vent their grievances. This is similar to the political scenario in a democratic country except in a democracy, the Press and the public is permitted to be present for the sessions of legislative assemblies. There is a Constitution to which elected officials pledge allegiance.

Not that this prevents assemblies from being dysfunctional as was observed in the most recent session of the Indian Parliament. Here the minority brought the house to a halt, the majority being either unable or disinclined to set things right. Parliament functions on a party basis. An individual can be effective if she or he teams up with one group or the other.

The BPP election scheme is quiet on the day-to-day functioning of the trust. Whether any amendments to the scheme will ensure smoother working is debatable. What is required is public involvement with the BPP. For starters, the trustees must be mandated to hold public meetings once or twice a year to give an account of their achievements and shortfalls. Each trustee must present a report on their activities. Budgets and accounts must be published.

The sobering thought of facing voters annually or biannually, justifying expenditure may cause the trustees to be more answerable and hopefully more responsible. There appear to be endemic failings in the functioning of the BPP and these have to be corrected structurally.


Villoo Poonawalla