Braving the barricades

For every positive action there is an opposing negative reaction. Wanting to help others is not sufficient. In order to achieve one’s objective one has to engage with those opposed to one’s ideas. The main objective of the Global Working Group (GWG), a world Zoroastrian body, is the welfare of disadvantaged Zoroastrians throughout the world, but especially in India. As the World Zoroastrian Organisation Trust Funds chairman Dinshaw Tamboly mentioned at the 13th GWG virtual annual general meeting held on January 15, 2022,"Poverty in the community is increasing day-by-day." Being an aging community with few earning members and several dependents, matters have been worsened by the pandemic. In a note circulated to members prior to the meet, Tamboly noted, "Funds are required urgently to provide assistance to community members in distress," largely on account of Covid-related setbacks. The main purpose of the GWG forming a trust is to receive funds from overseas associations and individuals and channeling the money to the needy.

Why would anyone obstruct such a worthy cause? But they have, filing an objection with the Charity Commissioner (CC) to oppose the formation of the trust. Parsiana sent WhatsApp messages on January16 to traditionalists Rayomand Zaiwala (whose father Khushru, a lawyer, filed the objection) and Aspi Deboo, a realtor and community activist, inquiring why they opposed the trust coming into existence. Deboo replied he was "neutral on this" but as he happened to be attending a matter at the CC’s office that day, the "Zaiwalas requested me to seek an adjournment as he (Khushru) was out of town… I personally feel that the NRIs (non-resident Indians) should keep their money and their way of practicing the religion to themselves and not interfere with the Bombay and Gujarat Parsis’ properties and ways. The outstation mofussil anjumans having lands and sanatoria and agiaries with near zero Parsis living there… are the targets of this proposed global trust." In his application to the CC, Khushru questioned solicitor Burjor Antia’s credentials to be a trustee of the Global Council of Zoroastrians Trust (GCZT) and made several derogatory remarks about him. He described Antia’s application for formation of the Trust as "illegal and a fraud on charity (which) would threaten the very existence of the Parsi Zoroastrian community."

So far seven hearings have been held with the CC official being absent at two and the complainants at two. The Zaiwalas had opposed some years back the setting up of a cosmopolitan hospital on the grounds of The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital (PGH). The income from that venture was to subsidize the Parsi-only PGH. Aside from supporting the loss making PGH which caters to all sections of the community, especially the disadvantaged, the new unit would have been a boon to the city of Bombay during the past and present pandemics. Hospital beds are filling up with the Omicron afflicted.

The GCZT is not the only worthwhile project being opposed. The respected Parzor Foundation that circulated a request to community members to fill out a questionnaire is also under criticism. "As per the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MOMA), Government of India" Parzor has "been mandated to create a comprehensive data base of all Parsis living in India, for use in planning further support schemes on the lines of the Jiyo Parsi scheme and educational scholarships of MOMA…We have a large number of Parsis whose income is much lower than what is generally perceived. We have provided anecdotal evidence regarding cases of genteel poverty, excessive burden on a few earning members, etc; however the government needs hard statistics and actual facts," notes a covering letter by Parzor director Dr Shernaz Cama.

Even this laudable effort, where the government wants to further assist the community, faces opposition. One text banner on WhatsApp states, "WARNING — Do not respond to the Jio (Jiyo, actually) Parsi data collection form." Another unsigned letter addressed to the "Dear Parsi community" urges Parsis to write to the Prime Minister "With complaints against Jiyo Parsi which is trying to encourage conversion of non-Parsi and Hindu spouses into the community." As one Parzor official stated, the opposition may have been triggered due to "a note saying we needed non-Parsi spouse data too." Nothing could be further from the truth. Liberals criticized the Jiyo Parsi fertility program years back because it barred Parsi women married to non-Parsis the benefit of the treatment. Another anonymous letter asks Parsis to be "vigilant" as several surveys are under way or proposed, namely, a School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) (the letter states "SAOS") PhD student’s survey, and a SOAS survey, Gen Z and Beyond.

Some years back when The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India attempted a survey of properties owned by Parsi trusts to safeguard small anjumans with minuscule Parsi populations, a hue and cry was raised claiming the all-India body was coveting these properties with the intention of monetizing them for personal gain. Anjumans were urged not to cooperate.

If the community’s finances were in shape, the funds from GWG or the Jiyo Parsi program would not be so crucial. But the financial position is dire. The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) has been unable to pay salaries for December 2021 to their 300 or so employees. Parsiana inquired from the three majority trustees via WhatsApp texts on how they intended to raise the finances. "Are any flats lined up for auction or are there any other means to raise funds in the near future?" We received no response from the chairwoman Armaity Tirandaz or trustee Viraf Mehta. Trustee Xerxes Dastur, a chartered accountant, replied there was a delay "because of various issues. Rents normally cover our shortfall but this time the rent collection post December 15 (due to) Covid is very bad."

We then texted a follow-up query to the trio: "Do you think in hindsight waiving the Rs 750 service charges on flats was a mistake?" Only Dastur replied, stating, "Lots of poor folk affected by Covid still need help." We further queried him, "At the cost of not paying salaries?" To which Dastur stated, "That was then. The Rs 750 waiver is overall a small percentage of the overall shortage of funds." The "overall shortage" is over 11 crore rupees (around USD 1.5 million). It is apparent the three have no clue as to how or when they are going to muster finances. Every possible scheme proposed to raise finances has hit some roadblock. The two warring factions (BPP trustees Tirandaz, Mehta and Dastur are in one camp and owe allegiance to former BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta; Noshir Dadrawala and Kersi Randeria constitute the opposing side) blame each other for being unable to monetize the Godrej Baug ownership housing project that has languished for years and the housing-cum-commercial complex in Navsari that has been in limbo for even longer. Bureaucratic hurdles exist, but they could be overcome if the trustees agreed on a common approach. But unanimity has proved elusive.

If for any reason the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act certification for any major community trust is not renewed by the government, funds to India from abroad, especially Hong Kong, the United Kingdom or the United States of America, will cease. The community appears on a downward spiral with little inclination to change direction.