Rayomand Coins

Rhetoric and reality

Changes in the leadership of three critical community institutions took place this month. The chairpersonship of The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI) and the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) changed dramatically and unexpectedly from BPP trustee Armaity Tirandaz to trustee Viraf Mehta while the chairpersonship of the recently formed Global Council of Zoroastrians Trust (GCZT), the monetary arm of the Global Working Group, shifted from trustee Burjor Antia to Neville Shroff, president of the Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hongkong, Canton and Macao.           
How much impact will the momentous changes in these premier local, national and global institutions have on the community? Very little in the immediate future. Changes in leadership are not necessarily indicative of changes in policy. Certainly in the case of the BPP, both the incoming and outgoing chair owe allegiance to former BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta. One can safely assume his policies will continue to hold sway but minus the contentiousness that characterized and marred the working of the trust during his tenure. 
Parsiana sent Viraf a questionnaire inquiring on what policies he intends to follow (see "Viraf’s vision,” pg 21). We specifically asked how he would counter the perception that his "decisions are influenced by your father (Dinshaw’s) thinking and philosophy.” He replied that his father’s "vast experience and knowledge (of the BPP of which he was a trustee for 21 years, the last seven as chairman) is an asset for our community. There are times when I do reach out for his guidance as do many other community members. At the end my loyalties lie with the BPP.”
Viraf said his "number one priority is to improve the financial health of the BPP by generating funds.” Aside from covering costs, "We need to restore all the commitments made to the community like second and third child subsidy, financial aid to our mobeds, etc.”
But at present he intends to follow his father’s calamitous policy of not increasing the outgoings on the 2,700 or so flats the BPP manages. Almost predictably Viraf stated, "As far as possible we would not like to burden our beneficiaries by raising outgoings.” One can understand subsidizing those who are financially hard pressed but why should a charitable trust underwrite those who are economically comfortable? And that too at the expense of assisting the disadvantaged in the community and the BPP’s class four employees. 
This myopic outlook is one of the major reasons why the 351-year-old trust is bankrupt and even unable to pay salaries as per their agreement with the workers’ union. In fact Viraf, along with Tirandaz and BPP trustee Xerxes Dastur, being in a majority in July 2020, irresponsibly voted to withdraw the Rs 750 service charge levied on the flats. The motive undoubtedly was to curry favor with the residents for the forthcoming trusteeship elections but it resulted in an annual loss of over two crore rupees (USD 241,278) or a total of eight crore rupees (USD 965,112) to date. The income received from the BPP flats does not even cover the municipal taxes on the property. The Maharashtra Rent Control Act permits landlords to recover all government dues and also to annually increase the rent by four percent. The BPP has done neither. The Wadia Committee, in contrast, prudently retained the levy on the 1,493 flats managed by them. 
How does Viraf intend to raise funds? He listed six property development projects the BPP is "currently working on” while another four are "in the pipeline.” Experience has shown that such projects, in the unlikely event any of them ever fructify, take years. Firstly, all the trustees must agree on the proposal which can only occur after Dinshaw gives his blessings to the venture. Then public notices have to be given which permits all and sundry to raise objections, sow seeds of doubt, plant conspiracy theories, build up public opposition and at the opportune moment rush to the Charity Commissioner and the courts to stymie the scheme.
The plan to build a cosmopolitan hospital on The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital grounds to help subsidize the institution’s operating loss [Rs 16 crore in 2022-2023 (USD 1,930,225)] failed despite a donor offering to cover costs. A scheme to develop the Parsi Lying-In Hospital came to naught. The Iranian Zoroastrian Anjuman has been attempting to sell its land in Palghar over the past 10 years; the Calcutta anjuman’s proposal to sell a property is stuck in the courts. It took the Mhow anjuman nine years to dispose of three properties. And allowing for the people Dinshaw has alienated over the years, it is unlikely they would view any BPP redevelopment or sale plans sympathetically. Buying lottery tickets may be a safer bet to raise funds in the immediate future. At least in a lottery there are some winners!
Asked about the lack of representation of anjumans from the north, east and south zones at the FPZAI meetings, Viraf says the BPP "will make an effort to convince the other anjumans to attend.” The attendees in recent years are mostly from south Gujarat, the others being alienated or sidelined over the years. But despite the all-India Federation being the apex body for the community in India, Viraf claims the BPP "is the apex trust of the community and will continue to be the apex trust.”
Few may share his heightened opinion of the beleaguered trust. His stand reiterates the initial opposition by the BPP to the formation of the Federation in the 1960s. Seven or so years after joining, the BPP stormed out of the Federation following criticism of their electoral scheme at the January 1978 Third World Zoroastrian Congress in Bombay. The trust wisely rejoined when lectured by the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to speak with one voice on the issue of adoption. 
If any trust has the right to term itself "apex” it is the Hong Kong anjuman that through prudent utilization of their limited assets, were and are, able to fund community projects, individuals and institutions throughout the world. The GCZT has been created to largely facilitate the flow of funds from overseas associations to India. But the Indian government’s distrust and hostility toward nongovernmental organizations means that obtaining a Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) certification that permits Indian trusts to receive funds from abroad will be a long and tortuous process. A trust must be reportedly in existence for three years to qualify for FCRA certification.
Under the chairwomanship of Tirandaz over the past year and six months or so, the BPP has functioned more harmoniously than in the 20 years prior. Though they may disagree internally, there have been no public squabbles. As Viraf notes, "The board has made a conscious effort to move away from the majority-minority battle. Looking forward I foresee the board continuing to work collectively.”
That Viraf chose to reply to Parsiana’s questionnaire instead of dismissing it, is indicative of his willingness to engage in dialog. Whether he and his cotrustees can now capitalize on their goodwill and elevate the trust from its present ignominious standing to a premier position will depend largely on how much of their rhetoric they are able to transform into reality. 


Villoo Poonawalla