“For a grieving family, it is doubly painful if there is no one to attend to the departed,” explains 52-year-old volunteer Mehernosh Zaveri, who owns logistics company, Atash Truckers. “I’m not volunteering to break the strike. I’m volunteering to safeguard my religion and my Doongerwadi.”
Last week, about 220 sweepers, gardeners, hearse drivers and pallbearers, who work for the BPP in Parsi baugs and the Towers of Silence at Malabar Hill, sported union caps to raise awareness about the trust delaying negotiations on a new contract. The BPP responded with a 7% counter proposal to the 50-65% hike demanded by the workers, which was deemed “unacceptable”. Now, the workers are operating at a reduced pace to draw attention to their disgruntlement.
Zoroastrians dispose their dead by exposing a corpse to the elements in a roofless tower (dokhma). While Zaveri has never been inside one, volunteers like Homi Boga and Nozer Sutaria have cleaned functioning towers in Pune, Navsari, and Mhow. Last year, 58-year-old Boga, who works as a plumber in Mumbai, spent five months in Pakistan working as a khandia but left because he wasn’t happy with the pay. “I don’t want to break the strike but the corpses can’t be allowed to rot,” says Boga. “We’ll do this job for as long as we have to.”
While the BPP can find sweepers and gardeners to fill in for striking employees, sourcing Parsi pallbearers is much harder. In the event of a rebellion, having a ready band of volunteers will strengthen their postion. But for now, the BPP’s rival factions can’t agree on how to proceed. Chairman Dinshaw Mehta wasn’t even aware that substitute pallbearers were being sourced. “There is no need for this,” he said. “We just need to negotiate.”
BPP trustee Yazdi Desai, who belongs to the opposing camp, is spearheading the search for volunteers. He claims the workers’ union, Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha, is “exploiting” the 18 khandias to press for a 65% hike, which would cost the BPP an additional 3.16 crore per year. “Spending Parsi charity funds for the benefit of 220 unionized employees, 90% of whom are non-Parsi,” wrote Desai over email, “is unacceptable!” He suggests the workers accept the 7% hike or wait for the next board of trustees — elections are just around the corner — to decide the matter. The union’s general secretary, Dhunji Naterwalla says the workers are only asking for a 50-55% hike, which can be further pruned through talks. He has little faith in the volunteers’ ability to manage the Doongerwadi and blames Desai for the current situation.
Some volunteers aren’t sympathetic to the plight of the khandias. One Nowroz Baug resident, who asked not to be named, says they are handsomely compensated but have become greedy. They do see “gory sights”, he added, but if they treated the corpse with more reverence and followed all the religious rituals, people would respect them more.