The only time one can be ecstatic about getting a flat is when it is a house in the city, not a tyre that one is talking about. The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) is one of the largest land owners in Mumbai, scrambling to provide housing to a dwindling community
By Hemal Ashar / Mid-Day
When chairs are hurled flying across the air like deadly missiles, mikes ripped out from their places and choicest epithets ring across the room, one can be sure it is the floor of the Indian assembly where the Speaker walked out because he could not restore order.
Not just the Indian assembly, these acrimonious scenes could be seen as part of the election run-up to the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) too. Two years ago, there was a groundbreaking election to decide who would sit on those all-important chairs. Bitter verbal battles spiked exchanges between contesting candidates, groupism prevailed, cleaves between the modern and the traditionalists deepened, when you sit on a panel that administers some of the largest tracts of real estate the city, the power you wield is tremendous.
"Yet, we do not have an exactly idea of how many acres of land belong to the BPP," says BPP, Chief Executive Mehli Colah in his south Mumbai office at the imposing JJ School precinct (a 200-year old institution) at Fort. "I have been told though that we are the second largest land owners in Mumbai after the Bombay Port Trust (BPT) though I have no statistical evidence to support that."
Besides BPP owned and administered land, there are several other buildings in the city, which are owned by private Parsi trusts and individuals. In fact, the breathtaking JJ School building where the BPP is housed is Parsi-owned. Then, there are other colonies like the Parsi Salsette Association in Andheri (east) with more than 700 flats. This is now owned by the Charity Commissioner and administered by six Parsi trustees. Says resident Narioshang Nava, "We also had the Towers of Silence (where the dead are taken to rest in peace) near the colony but now this is defunct, as there are no vultures."
While several private Parsi trusts and owners have buildings in this city, the BPP by far is the largest owner and administrator of community land. This community that is affectionately known as, ‘Bombay’s bawas’ may be dwindling but, the land the BPP keeps acquiring thanks to various philanthropists shows no sign of waning. The BPP’s most recent large-scale acquisition happened approximately four years ago, when it bought the Nirlon office property in Goregaon and converted it to a residential baug (colony).
Says Colah, "The land we acquire depends on the donations that we get from Parsi philanthropists. In this way, with the corpus that we have collected through the years, we have become huge land owners. Today, the BPP has 5,500 tenements (flats). Hopefully, we can keep increasing that number." The changing outlook has affected the way Parsis leave their estate or money to the BPP." Says Colah, "Earlier, several Parsi families would cut off ties completely with their children if they married outside the community. They would then leave the property to the BPP instead of their children. Today, though, this stance has softened and some people have changed their way of thinking."
The big R that has hit Mumbai city — redevelopment — has not escaped the BPP too. Those Parsi colonies, with a character all their own, may soon be replaced by what Mumbaikars call, ‘towers’. "We are looking at redevelopment projects, in the pipeline is the Navroz Baug redevelopment in Lalbaug. Similarly, the Andheri skyline is to change with Bharucha Baug’s redevelopment on the anvil. Colah says, "BPP chairman, Dinshaw Mehta has negotiated with the tenants asking them to move out. My message to the tenants is for them to co-operate."
Ironically, though the community often rues its diminishing numbers. "We still have 1,200 applications on the waiting list for houses," says Colah attributing the rise to the number of people awaiting homes. "Because of the break-up of the joint family system. Today, everybody wants to stay separately."
Allotting BPP houses is a thankless task, because one cannot please everyone. BPP is a target of abuse, and allegations of corruption, nepotism and favourtism are rife. Yet, sticks and stones may break their bones but names will never deter them. "We have to keep allotting houses on a point system. It is like this: you have 100 applications for 1 home, so 99 are going to be rejected." Colah says optimistically though that, "In seven to eight years we hope to have no waiting list."
The BPP and several Parsi trusts are accused of corruption and allegations have been flying that Parsi-only property has been surreptitiously sold off to those outside the community for commercial gain. The courts and the Charity Commissioner’s office is the perpetual haunt of BPP chairman, Dinshaw Mehta. Colah agrees and says with trademark humour the community is known for, "Parsis love litigation. Even if there was only one Parsi in the world, he would look into the mirror and talk to himself, that is how much we love to litigate.
Mehta says, "Currently approximately 40 cases are in litigation for various reasons. I however deny that the BPP allows its houses to be bought by non-Parsis."
The 300-year-old BPP, which began in 1682, has a large number of shops and commercial establishments within the baug precincts and on the periphery, which have been rented out to various owners.
With exploding demand, the BPP is pushing the envelope, buying tracts of lands in the suburbs to accommodate more Parsis. "Parsis do not want to move to Andheri or Goregaon as they feel the community hubs — its hospitals, doctors, agiarys, Tower of Silence are all located in south Mumbai."
The only option then, for the community is to go vertical. The Tower of Silence to rest in peace, and other towers to live in peace.
5,500, flats owned by the BPP
1,200, names on the waiting list for BPP homes
8, years BPP says after which hopefully, there should be nobody on the waiting list
Some Parsi baugs or colonies
Dadar Parsi Colony
Recently acquired Nirlon property in Goregaon
The first floor of a heritage building in South Mumbai is teeming with youngsters, sporting yellow tees emblazoned with ZYNG. They are volunteers of Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation (ZYNG), the youth initiative of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), the apex administrative body of the Parsi-Irani Zoroastrian community in India.
Inside the auditorium, one youngster is Beeboying; two girls are going through their paces, a couple fine-tuning their act, while some are horsing around. Looking at their high spirits and cool attitude one would have imagined that they were waiting their turn for the elimination round of ZYNG’s first-ever Ultimate Dance Competition?
Tomorrow, Saturday October 9 finalists from these rounds picked by Longines Fernandes will perform to a pre-booked house at St Andrews Auditorium in Bandra. ZYNG’s core group member Pearl Tirandaz, a dancer herself animatedly exclaims, "What better way than dance to reach out to the community?" She adds that, "It’s a good platform for someone in Navsari to get an opening in Bollywood as the winner gets to be an assistant to Longines Fernandes." Longines is a well-known choreographer and dancer.
ZYNG volunteers distributed flyers announcing auditions for the first-ever Ultimate Dance in colonies in Pune, Navsari, Surat, Ahmedabad and Mumbai and inserted advertisements in the community paper, the Jam-e-Jamshed weekly. The response from Mumbai was expected, but Tirandaz says, "Pune, Navsari, Surat and Ahmedabad are brimming with talent." Many entries for solos and duets stemmed from those who live outside of the baugs. This is just what ZYNG wanted, to reach out beyond the baugs.
Going from the response and all the excitement for the final, ZYNG may as well make Ultimate Dance an annual feature. ‘Dance bawa dance’ is an apt credo. After music, dance is a unifying factor. ZYNG has done well to use it as a platform to reach out to youth.
Baug-o mein bahaar hai
The sun may have set on the British Empire with its colonies, but Parsi colonies continue giving the city its unique flavour. Some scenes you may see at all times of the day in these baugs.
5 am: The doodhwala comes from the Parsi Dairy Farm.
6 am: Somebody takes 46 kicks and in case you think he is practising for a martial arts competition it is only to start the scooter.
8 am: Frantic mother shouts, "Mehernosh tu bhona no dabbo bhuligayo" running in a nightie, down the ‘main street’ of the baug.
10 am: Ladies clapping from balconies to call the, ‘taja paplet kolmi walo’ and all such vendors.
11 am: The jobless, wifeless, and the hopeless come down with a war cry of mcbc abuse, to play cricket or volleyball.
6 pm: The ‘chillar’ (below-12) comes down to play.
7 pm: The hero of the Parsi Colony, the pavwala (what did you think? Shah Rukh Khan?) arrives with, ‘karak’ and ‘naram’ options.
8 pm: A young man is practicing a wheelie with his bike with melodramatic teenage girls squealing louder than required.
10 pm: Someone gets enough bones only for one stray dog, so the other dogs create a havoc.
Perhaps they have never heard of the adage every dog has his day, but, one thing is for certain, havoc reigns at all times in the Parsi baugs.
Excerpted from Hey, I got a flat
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