The dignity of labor

The airing on the front page of The Times of India of the social and economic grievances of the Doongerwadi pallbearers aroused considerable community ire. This was supposed to remain our shameful secret and now everyone knew how we treat our corpse bearers. There was little outrage expressed over the existence of an economically deprived and socially outcaste sub-culture that serves to consign the Parsi dead to their final resting place. Indeed one community commentator while endorsing the call for volunteers to carry the funeral biers into the Towers of Silence termed some of the khandhias and nassessalars wife beaters, beggars, drunkards and gamblers.

What brought the subject to the public platform was the reluctance of the majority of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustees to negotiate in good faith with the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha (MMS) to renew the three-year labor contract that became due this January. The Union represents around 220 or so Class IV employees of the BPP. BPP trustee Yazdi Desai further fuelled resentment by calling for volunteers to carry corpses into the dakhmas in the event of a strike. The Union rightly saw this act as an affront. When talks are in progress, both parties have to maintain the status quo. If either is viewed as trying to undermine the bargaining position of the other, repercussions can be expected.

One can understand a certain delay in arriving at a labor settlement. After all both sides want to believe they obtained the best deal possible. But the negotiations have to be in good faith. The last increment was given over three-and-a-half years ago. Desai and three of his co-trustees reason that BPP trusteeship elections are due this September/October and that the new board should decide on the contract. In the interim they want the workers to accept a seven percent increment from January 2015 till the new trustees are in office. Seven percent would not even be on par with inflation and certainly not industry standards. Any agreement would have to be within the accepted, current norms of a labor settlement. Thus if the majority of agreements are in the 30 to 50% increment range, no Union would settle for less. If they did, they would be open to charges of connivance or collusion with the management. They would also be accused of vitiating the environment for other unions who would be told to follow the precedent set in this settlement.

It is also not fair to burden the new trustees with matters the previous board should have handled. They may well ask “What were the past trustees doing for 10 months when a settlement should have been arrived at?” (In a meeting with the BPP trustees on July 14, the MMS reportedly demanded a monthly increase of Rs 6,000 per worker. The last settlement in 2012 was for Rs 4,500. Another meeting is scheduled for July 21. If no agreement is reached a strike may be called.)

The argument over lack of funds to meet the new wage demands does not hold. The trustees squandered anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half crore rupees (depending on whom you ask) on legal charges in the ego-fuelled, priests ban case. They engaged top counsel both in the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court. Had they told the lawyers they did not have money to pay their exorbitant fees (up to Rs 10,00,000 for an appearance), the jurists would have declined the brief. When left with no option, the trustees pay.

The BPP employees are viewed as more vulnerable, hence the dilly-dallying tactics and the paltry offer. At present the trustees are utilizing trust money to argue that BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta’s term expired on July 15 this year, while Mehta counters that the election scheme permits him to stay till his third term is completed this October. The next date for a hearing in the Bombay High Court was scheduled after July 15! The dispute could go on for years. How many lakh rupees have been dissipated in this frivolous litigation?

Why is the BPP crying shortage of funds when all these past decades the trustees managed to raise the money to pay its employees? What has changed this time around? Bad management? Financial incompetency? Unless the trustees can explain their inability to pay, they cannot count on public support or sympathy from the Union and workers. The employees’ patience will run out if it hasn’t already. With the trustees making a total mess of matters over the past seven years and exposing the community to public ridicule, the last thing one needs is an agitation or worse still, a strike. The trustees need to resolve the issue prior to the matter being assigned to the Labor Commissioner or the labor courts. Aside from the public exposure this would cause, the BPP will have to also hire legal counsel. How will they find the money for that?

Even if an agreement is arrived at with the Union, unless the community insists on reforms the lot of the pallbearers will remain unchanged. In 1973 in an interview with Parsiana (see “Future shock,” November-December 1973) former BPP trustee Shiavax Vakil commented, “We treat them as harijans, untouchables. They do not go to functions. They cannot go to fire temples without going through nahan… I think they deserve human treatment.”

Between 1972 and 1973 when Vakil entered the dakhmas accompanied by his co-trustee Dr Aspi Golwalla he noted, (see “The living and the dead,” Parsiana, September-October 1973), “It is a myth to suppose that even during the months when the birds are there in plenty the flesh of the bodies of the departed is substantially consumed by the birds. There is a paucity of birds, whatever the reasons may be, with the result that substantial parts of the bodies remain untouched. Small portions are eaten not only by vultures but by crows and kites…
“When the bodies are lowered in the well, they are consigned one over the other like dead carcasses of animals and remain so in that state for months rotting and stinking in the process of decomposition.”

In Surat, the former Parsi Panchayat secretary/accountant Sorab Katpitia would periodically inspect the interiors of the Towers of Silence. Former BPP chief executive officer Behram Dastur stated he would view the interiors without entering the dakhmas. Now it is unlikely anyone does so. Thus family members and friends should have the right to assist the pallbearers in carrying the mortal remains of the deceased into the dakhma. The realization that lay people will be viewing the horrendous conditions in the Towers will result in measures being taken to ensure a more hygienic and orderly environment. Plus when others share in this gruesome chore, the stigma will lessen around the corpse bearers.

In nearly all other communities, family, friends, colleagues carry the funeral bier. Desai’s call for volunteers has met with an encouraging response. So irrespective of the wage settlement, the entry of lay people should be introduced after discussion with the workers and the Union.
A change in nomenclature also would help. The word nassessalar derives from naso or putrid matter. The term khandhia derives from the word shoulder. Surely a more dignified job title can be found from the scriptures? Until more meaningful reforms can be introduced, the community should take small measures at least to demonstrate they are seized of the problem, rather than merely wishing it away.

Published in Parsiana.