MUMBAI: On Monday, over 230 Class IV workers including the Tower of Silence’s pallbearers began sporting red Gandhi topis with their union’s name “Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha” emblazoned across. This was the first phase of a peaceful protest, which could quickly escalate into a full-blown strike if the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) continues to evade their demands for higher wages, retirement benefits, accident life insurance, pension and accommodation. These workers, employed in Parsi baugs and the Doongerwadi as sweepers, watchmen, gardeners, hearse drivers and pallbearers, submitted their demands to the BPP in October last year but negotiations on their new service contract have still to begin.
“We have been working on a cost analysis, which was never done in the past, and that is why it has taken some time,” explains trustee Yazdi Desai, who belongs to the BPP’s orthodox faction. “They have asked for 57-65% increase, which we are not comfortable with.” Yazdi added that the trustees have a counter proposal of a 7% hike, which will be discussed at the Tuesday board meeting. However, Chairman Dinshaw Mehta, who belongs to the smaller reformist faction of the BPP, seemed incensed on behalf of the workers. “For the last eight months, they have been asking for a preliminary meeting to discuss their demands but we don’t have the courtesy to even meet them. It’s ridiculous,” he said blaming the majority faction for the delay.
In the event of a strike, funerals at the Doongerwadi will come to a standstill as there will be no one to clean the bodies and carry them to their final resting place. “Khandias (Parsi pallbearers) should be considered at par with priests because they play an important role in disposing the dead,” explains the general secretary of the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha, Dhunji Naterwalla. However, they must contend with being treated as “untouchables”, who few Parsis want to associate with.
On Monday, angry emails were exchanged between the two trustees with Desai accusing Mehta of “abetting, aiding and encouraging” the union agitation. Mehta blamed the current agitation on Desai’s “intransigence” and his wife’s “interference in Doongerwadi affairs”. Desai, however, explained that his wife only accompanied other trustees to supervise the removal of garbage. “We have 18 malis, who do just one hour of work everyday,” says Desai, “Somebody has to crack the whip and I’m trying to do that.” According to the general secretary of the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha, Dhunji Naterwalla, it’s this infighting within the BPP that has delayed the negotiations.