Mumbai: 3,000-yr Parsi tradition of final rites threatened by strike

The Bombay Parsi Punchayet received a notice of a strike by the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha, which also includes workers who lay the community’s deceased to rest; the notice came after negotiations for a wage hike broke down yesterday

After causing months of unrest in the Zoroastrian community, the clash between the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) and over 200 Class-IV workers registered with the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha now threatens the same for the deceased members of the community.


A 1955 image of the Tower of Silence. Pic/Getty Images

The 3,000-year-old Parsi rituals of laying the dead to rest are at risk, after the workers’ union yesterday sent the BPP a notice declaring a strike over a wage-hike row.

Break down
The conflict began in October-November 2014, when the workers’ three-year contracts came up for renegotiation. Initially, the union demanded a 70 per cent wage hike for the workers, of whom 18 are corpse-bearers, while the others work as cleaners, gardeners, drivers, etc.

Trustee Yazdi Desai (left) insists the BPP cannot afford to pay the workers as much as the union is demanding. The workers’ union general secretary, Dhunji Netarwala, said they sent the BPP a notice of strike yesterday and would wait for 15 days to see if a settlement could be reached, before moving ahead. Pic/Shadab Khan
Trustee Yazdi Desai (left) insists the BPP cannot afford to pay the workers as much as the union is demanding. The workers’ union general secretary, Dhunji Netarwala, said they sent the BPP a notice of strike yesterday and would wait for 15 days to see if a settlement could be reached, before moving ahead. Pic/Shadab Khan

The BPP had responded by offering a 7 per cent increase year on year, explaining that the trust lacked the funds to offer more. The row has been worsening steadily, and, on July 8, the two groups almost came to blows at Doongerwadi, the union’s general secretary, Dhunji Netarwala told this paper.

They finally seemed to be inching towards a resolution at a meeting held on Tuesday evening, but talks broke down after a notice of strike was dispatched to the BPP yesterday. “We have served them with a notice as a recognised union under the state Unions Act.

We will wait for 15 days, as required by the law, to see if any settlement is possible. After that, we will take a call on how to proceed,” said Netarwala. Explaining what led to this move, Netarwala told mid-day, “Union president, Chand Bibi and vice-president Gautam Yadav also attended the meeting on Tuesday evening with the hope of arriving at a solution and we gave in a lot, but they (BPP) just wouldn’t agree.

They come with no clear plan, keep changing their minds, and can’t arrive at an agreement with all the in-fighting in the committee. Hence, this step.”The two parties had also met on July 14, when the BPP had agreed to give the workers interim relief packages. However, this idea also fell through.

'Can’t afford it'
BPP trustee Yazdi Desai, who has been resolute in his stance that the BPP cannot afford wage hikes, was stunned to learn that a strike notice had been dispatched. “I am not aware of that,” he said, adding, “Netarwala said he would wait for a day and then revert. We were okay with paying Rs 3,200; that was not the bone of contention.

It was the matter of interim pay vis-a-vis final payment.” According to Desai, the BPP board wanted it to be the final payment for the year, so that the new board, which will take over in September, could start negotiating in January 2016.

But this did not sit well with the workers’ union. Netarwala, however, insisted that that the quantum of pay was also under dispute, even though there was only a difference of Rs 300 in the amount they had suggested and the figure BPP was offering.

Asked how the BPP would proceed, Desai said, “The main thing is the work the khandias and the bungli kamdars do we can get casual workers to get the baugs cleaned. We had two meetings with 40 volunteers the week before last, 8 to 10 of whom are pros at this kind of work. So, we’ll just have to activate that.”

Number game
>> Number of striking workers: Over 200
>> Khandias/Nassasalors: 18
>> Current pay of a pallbearer (according to BPP): Rs 21,000 
>> Current pay of pallbearer (according to the union): Rs 17,000

Parsi tradition
This strike could leave Malabar Hill’s Doongerwadi the 355-year-old final resting place for Zoroastrians without khandias and Nassasalors, workers who carry corpses into the Dakhma or Tower of Silence as per the 3,000-year-old tradition of Dakhmenashini, which also prescribes that these workers must be Zoroastrian.

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