In July, Parsi-Zoroastrians across the world will take part in a ballot to elect a trustee in the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), their largest representative body.
The BPP is one of the thousands of charities registered in Mumbai, but the organisation is like no other trust in the city. It is one of the biggest landlords in Mumbai, controlling housing estates – where only Parsi-Zoroastrians can live – with over 4,000 flats.. The trust owns large parcels of undeveloped land in the city’s suburbs, manages several fire temples and runs the 50-acre Tower of Silence cemetery on Malabar Hill. You can say the trust runs a cradle-to-grave social service – at least till the Parsi Lying-in Hospital in Mumbai’s Fort area was shut down as the community’s birth rate plummeted.
Earlier, only donors could vote in the elections to select trustees. This changed when the trust decided to adopt its version of universal adult franchise in 2008. Every adult member of the community can now vote. Since then, the polls to select the seven-member board of trustees have become a miniature version of India’s cacophonic and rancorous elections. Rival candidates have accused each other of bribing voters and there were concerns about the money spent by the trusteeship seekers. To ensure that the elections are fair, the community created a court-approved set of rules which calls for, among other things, observers – representatives of the candidates to be present in the voting area to report any irregularities.
There have been disputes among trustees over the management of properties and relations between rival groups have been so acrimonious that there has been violence, much to the embarrassment of community members. In September 2016, during the hearing of a criminal complaint filed by a former trustee, accusing the then chairman of the trust of taking a bribe from a businessman for tenancy rights to a BPP-owned building in Fort, another trustee alleged that he was hit by a brick, causing injuries. Both groups registered police cases against each other.
One seat in the trust will fall vacant after Munchi Cama, a descendent of the family that set up the Gujarati-language Bombay Samachar, now Mumbai Samachar – Asia’s oldest newspaper, founded in 1822 – will complete his term. Cama, who had serious differences with other trustees, has reportedly not been attending trust meetings after he sent a letter of resignation – incorrectly addressed, apparently – and withdrew it. While one group of trustees refused to accept the resignation, one former trustee went to Maharashtra’s Charity Commissioner who is hearing the dispute. As the magazine Parsiana reported in March, the two sides have spent more than one crore rupees in legal fees, while the asset-rich trust struggles to pay priests and suspended the programme to increase the Parsi birth rate. Talks about reforming the election process, reducing the trusteeship term and introducing a code of conduct for candidates have been forgotten, the magazine commented..
As the trust prepares for elections, social media forums, where members of the community debate and discuss issues, are talking about plans by Anahita Desai, the wife of the trust’s chairman, Yazdi Desai, to contest the elections. Reactions to the reports have been – to use a mild expression – mixed. One community commented on a social media forum: “It is absurd for us to imagine that our community is so starved for decent leadership that we have stooped to a level where candidates like the chairman’s wife seek to re-contest a seat she lost a few years ago.”
“Lawyers, entrepreneurs, chartered accounts – these are people who we need. Why have they vanished from the scene of election,” the commentator added. Yazdi Desai accused the rival group of using the community’s press – besides Mumbai Samachar and Parsiana, there are two weeklies – to question his wife’s credentials as a candidate. “Those who are against me are writing against her in the papers when, generally, the community has been happy with her work (as a social worker) without being in the office (of the BPP),” said Desai. Commenting on the criticism about having two members of a family in the trust, Desai said this is not unprecedented. “There have been such members in the past and other trusts – some of which receive donations from abroad – have family members are trustees.”