Seven years ago, when the city’s dwindling Parsi community last went for votes to choose the elected representative for its chief administrative body — the Bombay Parsi Punchayet – religion was at the forefront of all campaigns. But this time around, as the Parsis go for elections on Sunday, they have something completely different on their minds – the development of the community.
The front-runners contesting India’s smallest election feel much mudslinging, infighting and allegations of corruption have beleaguered the functioning of the Punchayet. Though pitted against one another, the candidates unanimously feel the need to work for community’s welfare while finding ways to curb its shrinking population.
The Punchayet or the BPP, established 343 years ago, is the supreme administrative body of the Parsi Irani Zoroastrian community in India, and is about 40,000-members strong.
For a member of the Parsi community, BPP gains significance as it not only has control over the large corpus of funds but is also second to the city’s biggest landlords – the Bombay Port Trust. From providing housing to the needy to disposing of the dead, the Punchayet is pivotal to the functioning of the community’s social structure.
Twenty three candidates are contesting for five seats, meaning there are four people contesting for a single trustee seat. Interestingly, unlike last time, all five centres will be voting simultaneously on the same day and the results will be out at night.
Jehangir Patel, who runs Parsiana, the community magazine, says “improvement” will be on the priority list of the board of trustees, regardless of who gets elected. “The new board of trustees are sober enough to realise that the last board was disgraced. This is a more dignified election where nearly all candidates are following the code of conduct,” says Patel. He elaborates that the last election was the first time the community cast its votes under the universal adult franchise.
On Sunday, the voter turnout is expected to be between 10,000 and 12,000 – a minuscule proportion as compared to the gigantic figures of the country’s last Lok Sabha polls.
But it is not discouraging for Noshir Dadrawala, one of the poll’s front-runners, who thinks 12,000 is a good number. There is awareness, feels Dadrawala, CEO of a city-based non-profit consultancy. He voices “good and effective” governance which comprises “transparency and accountability” on part of all elected trustees. “The (BPP) accounts in the last couple of years have not been filed with the government authorities; there are also union issues. It might, perhaps, take six to nine months to sort out all the problems,” he says.
A competent team in place, proposes Dadrawala, can resolve all factors hindering the Punchayet’s operations. During one of his public meetings at the opulent Dadar-Parsi colony, he was greeted by a crowd of 300 people and he hopes for a sizeable attendance of 15,000 Parsis on Sunday.
“For those who want to get themselves registered as voters,” points out Patel, “the process is pretty cumbersome.” In addition, one has to carry a government ID along with the registration certificate, therefore several encumbrances to voting.
Meanwhile, the Bombay Parsi Lying-in Hospital in south Mumbai is a bone of contention this time. The issue between the outgoing chairman Dinshaw Mehta and other BPP trustees escalated into a legal tussle going all the way up to the Supreme Court, which recently ordered a status quo on the hospital’s development. Mehta’s main grouse is that the hospital property, which is at least Rs 100 crore, was leased out in a “closed-door” deal.
Owner of Parsi Times, Kersi Randeria, who is a party to the petition, is being looked at as one of the strong contenders this time. Randeria, who is one of committee members of the hospital, says BPP, though the owner of the land has no role to play as the management committee of the hospital gains significance. “The management becomes a de facto trustee as under the Bombay Public Trust Act the manager is one more the trustee. The (BPP) trustees says the committee will instructs the BPP, which has to listen to the committee without any objection,” he says.
The population’s decadal dip of 10 per cent raises a major concern over the community’s existence – a fact Randeria proposes to address. The Parsi population in Mumbai currently stands at 40,000 which saw a 25 per cent drop from 1991 figures at 53,794. “It is a major challenge. We have a few programs like Jiyo Parsi going on currently. How much we will succeed we really do not know as it is an uphill battle,” he says.
He cites a WHO statistic, which he got to know during one of his public meetings while calling it alarming. “An average married couple needs to have 2.1 children and for any community to thrive it should not be below 1.9. Our average is 0.8,” shares 58-year-old Randeria.
Although comparatively young when compared to the likes of Randeria, Viraf Mehta at 38 years of age is confident. Proud of being outgoing chairman’s son, he denies all the allegations against his father – the senior Mehta. He says it is unfortunate that under his father’s chairmanship there was a paralysis in the BPP, but it was done by the majority four trustees amongst the seven. “My father was in the minority but unfortunately for him what the majority does is binding on him,” he says.
He is optimistic about the cash-flow for the BPP coming given there will be a board of trustees and the current stay on the housing will be listed immediately. “There were many schemes and projects of redevelopment that were introduced by my father were unfortunately put on the backburner. All of that start. I personally believe the new board will have everything on a silver platter,” says Viraf, who has studied in Chicago.
He expresses that people had their reservations about him but he says he convinced them. “My father has been there for 21 years and I have the same drive to give back the same to the community,” says Viraf.