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Facing the facts

"With reducing income…we were forced to cut down on grants and facilities provided to community members… If we do not plan forward for the welfare of our future generations they will rightly point fingers at us for not taking steps some years ago, leaving them with plenty of unsold property, but no current income to support them.

"We sincerely hope that at the Annual General Meeting (AGM), we can have more fruitful discussions and receive constructive suggestions on the matter."

So stated the trustees of the Calcutta Zoroastrian Communitys Religious and Charity Fund (CZCRCF) in their annual report for the financial year April 2022 to March 31, 2023 signed on June 19 this year and forwarded to Parsiana in August. Their lament could be of any Zoroastrian anjuman in India today: a shrinking population, vacant accommodation, fear of encroachment, dilapidated structures, limited revenue…

But not all community associations may have the foresight to comprehend the reality, share the information and willingly discuss the issues at a public forum. The CZCRCF trustees are to be applauded for being open and forthright with the community. They believe in taking the general body into confidence and involving them in decision making. This does not mean they do not face opposition. As the report notes: At the last AGM, trust chairman Numazar Mehta "made mention of the differences within the community which had unfortunately led to bitterness and rancor, adversely affecting the unity that existed within the Calcutta Parsis over the last 50 years or more. Unfortunately there has been no end to the differences and we from the trust would like to appeal to all sections of our community to keep uppermost in mind the interests of the community before self. Differences there will always be, and in fact it is a sign of an active dynamic community to have differences, but these should always be resolved in an open, democratic way. The decision, whether it be from a majority of members, or on a legal issue from the courts, should be honored by all parties."

The trust had to "curtail their regular activities… for financial constraints." An annual gahanbar to celebrate the birth of their late benefactor Edulji Olpadvala was held in January with 220 persons in attendance but neither Elders’ Day nor the Children’s Gift Scheme celebrations could be held "due to the very strained financial position."

Rental income took an almost 25% hit compared to the previous year. Part of the income is derived from renting around 15,000 sq ft of commercial property at 52 Chowringhee. "Despite efforts to get new corporate lessees…of some financial status," they were able to lease out only a third of the premises. Negotiations are ongoing for another 3,000 sq ft.

Income earned from bookings of the Olpadvala Memorial Trust Hall received a setback during Covid. From December 2022 till mid 2023 "we have had four bookings at our normal commercial rates," states the report. Three flats lie vacant at 1 Saklat Place, one flat at 6 Grant Lane and one in Khorshed Madan Mansion (KMM). Of the two flats that were locked and unoccupied in KMM, one tenant had returned a flat to the trust.

The almost 100-year-old KMM is in need of repairs "costing approximately Rs 50 lakhs (USD 60,467). The trustees sat with the residents and requested them to "come back to us on how the work should be done and the costs shared…

"It is unfortunate that we still have a situation where a few residents do not pay rent and quite a few who continue to pay very low rents in relation to what we get from new lessees. We are always prepared to consider situations where individuals/families with limited resources and means pay below par rents, but there are some residents who are unable to appreciate the need for paying increased rent even though it is apparent they can afford to do so," the trustees stated.

A proposal to sell vacant land at 84 Lenin Sarani sanctioned by the Calcutta High Court and "unanimously" approved by the community is pending as objections have been raised by a Bombay lawyer, Khushru Zaiwala.

Despite the reduction in income, the trustees stated they have signed a new, six-year labor agreement on April 4, 2023.

The trust incurred a loss of Rs 26 lakhs (USD 31,443) for the year as versus Rs 43 lakhs (USD 52,002) the previous year "thanks to substantial donations received during the year… [Rs 53,56,000 (USD 64,772)] largely from the estate of Boman Mirza, a previous resident of Calcutta …and a welcome reduction in (post Covid) medical expenses." Fixed deposits increased from Rs 5.28 crores (USD 638,532) last year to Rs 5.89 crores (USD 712,301).

The lack of pallbearers "could lead to the trustees having to regret the facility of dakhma to members and their families," the trustees cautioned. The trust has two pallbearers on their rolls but "a minimum of three are required... We have tried in the past to attract pallbearers from western India but failed to get even one." The large property is maintained "in as good condition as possible" and the dakhma was cleaned a few months ago.

The most depressing statistics cited in the report are under the headings Demography and Conclusion. Forty years ago when the Parsi population in Calcutta was 1,250, "we were….a thriving, active, enterprising and happy community," say the trustees. Now the Parsi numbers are down by over a third: 359 (202 females and 157 males). Of these, 132 females and 87 males, around 61%, are over 60 years of age. The report lists seven deaths and two births for 2022-2023. The trustees predict the Parsi numbers will drop to 250 in 10 years, with 125 non-Parsi spouses and children.

Rather than plead helpless, the trustees in their conclusion state: "We must face facts, but even a small number can have a meaningful and rewarding life if we plan for it now."


Villoo Poonawalla