Anahita Desai (53) who is contesting the upcoming Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) elections in July, is the Chief Executive Officer of the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ). It is an organisation with over 5300 Parsi members. She is a trustee of Sodawaterwalla Agiary and Machi Trust and has been involved in community affairs for more than 15 years. Anahita, wife of Yazdi Desai, Chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, is passionate about preserving and protecting the community’s traditions, beliefs, institutions and way of life. In a freewheeling chat with Kainaz Choksey, Anahita talks about her decision to contest the BPP elections, Parsi politics and much more. Excerpts from the interview…
Why have you decided to contest the upcoming Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) elections?
I have always been interested in the BPP. I have been involved in the BPP since the time my husband Yezdi had become a trustee in 2008. So, I know the staff and the workings of the BPP. I know its strengths and weaknesses. I think I would make a difference by being there in the organisation. There are no big plans of Oh! I will make so many flats or I will do this and that. I think there is a lot that needs to be done in the working of the BPP and how we deal with the beneficiaries. I think that is basically what I would like to be there for.
What do you consider as your strengths as a future BPP trustee?
My strength is knowing the organisation extremely well. As I said, I know the staff, the departments and the working of the BPP. I have been working at the ground level and interact a lot with the community members. I am the CEO of an organisation called WAPIZ. I can relate to the problems of the people. I know what people need and what is required in the BPP. My interaction with the community at the grass root level is very strong. The feedback that I get from the community, I think that is my strength of knowing the aspirations of the community members.
What are the aspirations of the community members from the BPP?
I think the community wants transparency within the BPP. The present Board has been publishing the BPP Connect, a periodic magazine to inform the community members regarding its workings. There is transparency to a certain extent but I think people need more of it. People do write emails which are not answered by the BPP. We do not even have a proper email address for people to shoot their problems to the BPP. That is one thing that we need to definitely work on. We need to have more meetings with people in the baugs. Most of the candidates say a lot during election meetings that more meetings and interactions will take place with the common people. But the staff does not go to meet people in baugs to see what problems they are facing. There is no follow up in the BPP. There are certain decisions that are passed by the Board but there is no implementation since there is no proper system in place. For example, a few years ago people had complained of faulty water metres. The BPP had promised that the faulty water metres will be checked and replaced. But that never happened. There are a lot of other examples where things are not moving, not because the BPP is not wanting to, but there is no system to get things done.
How do you plan to communicate with the community through social media and bridge the gap of communication?
I think being accessible to the community is very important. The present Board is accessible where a couple of trustees have been meeting the common public. But reaching out to the community is not done to a greater extent. I would really like to do it. I would like to go to a person, address and fix their problems. For example, if somebody has a leakage problem in the house, nobody really goes there to inspect. They would only ask the concerned department to get the roof done, call for the photographs and get the estimation of the cost. But not many times does someone go there physically. Most of the people in the community are working. You cannot expect them to devote that kind of time to do the ground work. For example, if the gutter and gullies are overflowing, a little follow up from trustees by visiting the site would be 100 times more effective than sitting in the office and instructing the staff to do the same.
Which are the key areas that require improvement in community services?
The BPP had started a lot of schemes. For example, the mobed scheme (scheme for the priests) which was started three years ago for full-time mobeds to give them Rs.10,000 per month. Somehow, the finances are not matching to the scheme. There are a lot of shortfalls from what is decided to the process of implementation. We have not paid the mobeds under the scheme for the last one year. We have not stopped the scheme but as and when we get the finances, we are helping people. I think we need to be more pro-active. We need to approach other trusts and philanthropists for the existing schemes. We need to bridge that gap between the BPP and what the beneficiaries want. We can approach big trusts who have their objectives of helping mobeds and they could bring donors. These are the kind of things that would really help. This will also help the image of the BPP which has really gone down over the years due to politics . It has become a universal adult franchise along with being a political office. Naturally, with that a lot of dirty politics has come in. Police complaints against trustees and financial impropriety by the previous Chairman of the Board have marred the image of the BPP. The community does not have that trust in the BPP which they had three to four decades ago. It is important to bring back that trust. Also, the BPP is more or less sidelined by the government agencies. Despite being the apex body of the community, we do not push ourselves. The BPP is not having a connect with the government. For example, in Delhi, the Delhi Anjuman co-ordinates with the government agencies. The BPP has got a very good Joint Deputy CEO, Shernaz Khambhatta. For the first time, we have started having a rapport with the Municipality staff and the Charitable Commissioner. We should be wishing the government officials on Diwali and giving them sweets on our community festivals to develop a good rapport, so that whenever we want any work to be done, it will not be a difficult task. We are totally lacking at it at the moment. There should be a connection with the local police and the Municipal Corporators of the wards. If there is a problem in any Parsi colony/ baugs, we can call up the authorities to fix it. The Corporators get our internal roads of the colonies done. But that rapport is only with the colony associations.
Do you have any proposals for such implementations?
I do not have any blue print but these are ideas that can be implemented. We have started the ball rolling but we need to do more of it. On Maharashtra Day, the BPP can send a congratulatory letter to the Governor. We do not do these things which show the goodwill of the community. If something is being done by the Corporators for the Parsi colonies, no letter of appreciation has gone from the BPP.
What is your view on the community infighting and politics?
Me and my husband are very much in the middle of politics. We have been targeted many times. A lot of defamatory articles have been written against us. But I do not think that has put us off politics. People even ask me why do I want to get into all this. But I am already in it. Elections have become a very dirty affair. Especially with the social media where people can type any names and send any rubbish to malign a person. Once politics enters any organisation, one cannot expect it to be a clean one. If Ratan Tata and Shapoorji Pallonji can fight, I do not know how people can think that we have to be holier than thou. In every Parsi colony and associations, there are fights. It may not be a high profile one, so it does not come out. But because the BPP is after all the apex body, it does come out. If there is a financial impropriety which the earlier Chairman was involved in, I think we need to speak up. We cannot be mute spectators to maintain an image and keep everything behind closed doors. There are allegations and counter-allegations and it is going to be there. It is a sad reality which we need to accept. Politics is there to stay and cannot be wished away. If the previous Chairman stops interfering in everything, there would be a dip in the community politics. In every contentious issue, he seems to be a part of it making it more contentious and fuelling it further. If he backed out, it would make a huge difference to the atmosphere of the community and the BPP.
Since your husband is a Chairman of the BPP, do you think it will affect your candidature?
It will to a certain extent. There are a few people who feel that people of the same family should not be on the Board or contesting for the same organisation. We have brought to the attention of the community that there are many such trusts and organisations where families are involved and these are not family trusts. We are talking about public trusts where charitable money given by donors are being run by husband-wife, father-son etc. and nobody seems to be having a problem with it. If there is capability in a person, I do not believe that should disqualify a person only because he happens to be the wife or the husband of a Board member. I am standing for the elections. I am not saying that I am walking in. I am open to questions from the community. I am not like the others in the trust who have got in without going through any process. I think capability of a candidate should not be discounted or that person should not be disqualified because of it.
Any plans for any redevelopment of housing colonies?
The BPP is planning to redevelop Bharucha Baug at Andheri. The Navroz Baug redevelopment at Lalbaug, Parel which was announced with a lot of fanfare with Nusli Wadia heading the project, it was stalled due to some demands of the residents which did not make the project feasible. Now, they are coming back and saying that they want the project. The BPP Board is very amenable. We have agains started the ball rolling on Nowroz Baug redevelopment. It is going to be a very long-term project of seven to eight years. It is because of the baugs where so many marriages are taking place within the community. For us, this is a motivation to make more colonies to prevent marriages outside the community. Another project will be undertaken at Goregaon at BPP colony. A few old buildings will be taken down and new buildings will be constructed. The project will take around three to four years. At present, all these projects are at the stage of acquiring permissions. We will have to relocate people who are staying there. That is a big issue. Certain flats at Panthaky baug at Andheri are presently vacant. We are not giving it away, since the people of Bharucha baug are going to be dishoused and will be given transit accommodation over there. Young people can avail of loans since double income people can easily get loans for ownership flats at a much lower that the market rate.
There are a few trustees who do not want to give the flats on deposit schemes. The Board has not for the last 2.5 years sold any flat. A lot of money that was coming through selling of flats was being utilised immediately. What happened in the Board under the previous Chairman was that as money came in by selling flats, it was used up. Now, with this new policy, we want to give flats to the deserving rather than subsidising the rich. When you sell a flat, what happens mostly is that Parsis living outside the colonies, sell their ownership flats. For example, they would sell a flat elsewhere for Rs.5 crores and purchase another at Parsi colonies for Rs.2 crores thus making a profit. This led to subsidization of the rich rather than giving it to the deserving cases. Since the money would be used up, it led to paucity of funds for other activities like education. The BPP does not have that much money that we had earlier. What we are trying to do now is sell a small percentage of flats at premium and give the remaining to the needy.
Any special schemes to aid the senior citizens?
I think there are many colonies that have been conducting a lot of activities for the senior citizens. They have been conducting several recreational workshops for them within the colonies. People have been demanding medical schemes for senior citizens. But the premiums are so sky high for medical insurance schemes that it is just not possible. The Jio Parsi scheme of the BPP has started a scheme where senior citizens who will look after kids in a creche kind of a setup would get some remuneration. Apart from that, we have not planned anything.
You had contested in 2011 and lost to another candidate. What is your learning from it? What is the strategy this time to emerge victorious?
In 2011 elections, my opponent was Munchi Cama. He spent nearly four times more than what I had spent. He gave lavish dinners, gambhars and free lunches to the community at various clubs. I could not manage to do that. I could not give gifts like refrigerators, microwaves, etc. which were given by him during election time. I thought it was a very horrible thing to do. He had even assured the community members that he would give 100 free flats which he has not delivered till date. I learnt that I could not match up to him where these free schemes were concerned. At that point of time, there was no election code of conduct regarding the curtailment of expenditure for campaigning. Now, there is a code of conduct that a candidate cannot spend more than Rs.5 lakhs for an election. They also used a lot of dirty politics then. But now I am used to it. I will be prepared for it. Earlier, I felt that not countering allegations would be a good idea but I realized that it needs to be countered when required. My proposer is Homi Ranina, an advocate of the Supreme Court and the person seconding me is Homai Daruwala, former Chairperson of Central Bank and present Chairperson of Zoroastrian bank.
What are your plans for campaigning for the upcoming elections?
I am waiting for the nominations of the other candidates to come through. I have not planned it it terms of where I will be having the election meetings, how many meetings and if I will be going from baug to baug because I do not know how many people are contesting the election. I am definitely going to use the social media. I am also going to use newspapers to put forth my views since the youth and senior citizens do not mostly turn up for election meetings. Endorsements will be done through WhatsApp, Facebook and even small interviews relayed through YouTube.
Since there is a lot of infighting in the community, what is at stake presently? Is it the money or the power?
People have this concept that if you are standing for an election and if you are spending that kind of money which is now curtailed to Rs.5 lakhs, people think that one is getting in to make more money. They cannot think of a concept where someone would want to spend money to do something for the community since that concept is very difficult to digest. But that is the truth about me. My husband is a working person. He is doing very well but we are not business people. At times, we have taken loans for the elections. There is no motive of getting any money. That is something we are very much against. Since flats are not being sold, there is no way anyone can make money. I have realized that being outside the BPP and wanting to do something for the community does not work. I feel you need to be in the BPP to make a difference.
Noshir Dadrawala has stepped down as a trustee. Do you think this move affects the upcoming elections?
Noshir Dadrawala has not tendered his official resignation. He has given a letter which was addressed to the community rather than to the Board and that too was wrongly addressed. The scheme of elections states that a trustee needs to address the letter specifically to the Chairman and not to the trustees. Noshir Dadradwala has addressed the letter to the trustees. Munchi Cama too had addressed his letter to the trustees and not to the Chairman. Their resignation is not valid. The Charity Commissioner has also ruled out the same. If the BPP accepts the letter which has not officially come to the Chairman, we will again be in the same nonsense soup, so it has not been accepted. It is through the media that Dadrawala has been speaking. Technically, he has not resigned.
What is your message to the community?
People should not believe everything that is said and written. They should verify whether what is is being written is right or wrong. For Munchi Cama, people used to write that he used to climb on the rooftops to get the water tanks repaired. A man with his kind of physical but up, who can barely step outside his car, such claims is definitely something to ponder about. Absolute lies have been written during elections in the past. The future of the community depends a lot on the BPP trustees. We need good people inside and not those who simply play politics.