Rayomand Coins

Keeping in touch

The substantial turnout at meets held by the main candidates in the run-up to the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship elections slated for May 29, 2022 is heartening (see "Engaging with the electors," pg 22). The community is not apathetic when it comes to electing its leaders. Even the queries raised by audiences demonstrated an awareness and understanding of current issues. One or two more assertive participants quizzed and even cross examined the trustees who were seeking reelection. Why was the service charge scrapped when nearly everyone was paying the amount? Why do people have to wait for hours to meet the trustees at their weekly Tuesday meetings? And so on.

The contestants carried themselves well. They struck the right tone and delivered their messages effectively. Some had prepared notes which they referred to infrequently. There were light touches and humor. The audiences, comprising mostly middle aged to older Parsis, also reciprocated courteously. At the meetings attended by Parsiana there were no nasty or heated exchanges, the credit for which must also go to the speakers.

The campaign meets were restricted to the baugs, judging by the schedules appearing on social media platforms. But with close to half the Bombay Parsi community living in other accommodation, there appears to be little, if any, outreach to them.

The candidates and the parties desirous of spreading their message to a larger audience could possibly do so by either live streaming their meetings or recording them and uploading the clips on YouTube. This would enable people living in other localities or anywhere in the world an opportunity to hear what the candidates have to say. One or two meetings could be so presented. After all, the candidates have their stock speeches which they deliver at each venue. Audiovisual professional Sarosh Daruwalla says streaming and uploading are possible using mobile phones, or, if budgets provide, professional cameras. People living close by anyway would probably prefer to attend the physical meetings.

In our questionnaire to the 15 candidates (see "Callout to candidates," Parsiana May 7-20, 2022) on whether they were in favor of constructing more housing for the community, 14 replied "Yes." Only Hoshang Jal responded "Maybe," clarifying he would be in favor "if it is established that there is a requirement." The other 14 agreeing to the proposition is understandable. After all, Parsis regularly approach the BPP and other trusts seeking accommodation. Young people cite the necessity of housing in order to start a family; some applicants live in dilapidated buildings or in perilous or unsanitary neighborhoods; others face long commutes to their place of work. Most applicants for housing are either turned away or told to wait. But as one candidate observed after visiting a non BPP colony off Lamington Road during campaigning, almost a third of the flats were locked. Similarly in other colonies several former occupants have expired, migrated elsewhere or kept the property locked due to legal disputes, either with the landlord or family members.

Without ascertaining whether the existing housing stock can be better utilized, creating more may result in a glut. In Poona, the Panchayat there has a surplus of 25 flats. The same story repeats in other parts of the country. At the meet at Captain Colony, BPP trustee Viraf Mehta mentioned the response to the auctioning of flats was tapering off. Either the demand has dropped or people do not have the financial means to bid. BPP trustee Kersi Randeria had once commented that many residents in BPP housing have more than one flat.

The auctioning of flats anyway is a controversial practice and undoubtedly goes against the wishes of the donor/settlor. The sale, however, does offer the fortunate buyer an opportunity to occupy a home (on a leave and license basis) in wholesome surroundings at a price much lower than the prevailing, cosmopolitan market rate.

Physical assets require a healthy local population to support, maintain and utilize the properties. But everywhere community numbers are depleting. Those left behind are mostly elderly. Can they be expected to look after trust assets when they can barely manage their own?

The BPP has around 4,400 flats; other colonies may comprise up to another 200. If we take a figure of 4,600 flats and multiply the occupants by three to a home, the figure works out to 13,800. The 2011 census figures for Parsis in Bombay were not released by the government of India. The last figure available is around 46,000 in the 2001 census. Going by the past rate of decline (18%), the Bombay Parsi population for 2022 would be in the 30,000 to 32,000 range. The number of voters on the BPP’s electoral rolls is said to be 30,742 on the general register and 1,116 on the donor register (those whose votes count as two). Any Parsi can register; they do not have to be residents of Bombay. Once their name is entered, it can remain forever.

While the names of those deceased in Bombay have been culled from the BPP death registers and removed, what about those who are cremated or die elsewhere in India or abroad? The number of voters present in Bombay on the balloting day and physically fit enough to venture to a voting center may even be half of what the rolls reflect. A voter turnout of 6,000 to 8,000 on the May 29 voting day at the five venues should be considered a respectable figure. These are all educated estimates. Obtaining any authentic data on our community is a frustrating, if not hopeless exercise.

The issue of collecting (reliable) data on the community was not touched upon by the candidates. The BPP will have to expend money to arrive at a realistic estimate of the Parsi population in Bombay.

The BPP could start by determining the number of residents in each of their 12 or so baugs and individual buildings. Other trusts could give a count of their occupants. Even this simple exercise will be mired in controversy, with people questioning the bona fide of the trustees. The charity commissioner will be moved to obstruct the survey. There is distrust with sufficient trouble makers to raise real or imagined bogeys.

Several of the candidates spoke of the need to communicate with the community. There was reference to the erstwhile BPP Review and the need to hold Samast Anjuman meetings. At every election there is a promise to reach out to Parsis and keep them informed of developments. But once the trustees are in office, these promises are broken, like so many others.

Today the channels of communication are manifold. Technology can change the way the punchayets, anjumans and associations interact with the community. And the costs are affordable. That would result in great savings.

There is no excuse for keeping in touch with voters only during elections. It has to be an ongoing process.



Villoo Poonawalla