It may be all quiet at Kappawalla Agiary, in Mumbai's Tardeo, but all's certainly not well. The Parsi fire temple (agiary) is currently the object of contention in a tug-of-war between its trustees and the community.
A tender for redevelopment of the agiary annexe into a residential project has been awarded to a tenant living in the annexe. And the larger community --' Mumbai is home to 45,000 Parsis --' that has witnessed such encroachments on open spaces surrounding their fire temples in the past, is alarmed.
Most recently Hilla Towers, a 24-storey residential building, was authorised to be constructed cheek-by-jowl with the 170-year-old Labaug agiary complex by the trustees of the temple.
"It's a nexus of callous trustees and rich builders that started back in the '60s, when land in the Walkeshwar temple complex was granted for a residential project," says Khojeste Mistri, managing trustee, World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ).
The justification offered by trustees of these agiaries is that their percentage of builder profits comes in handy for the maintenance of the ageing temples. "You don't need a few crore rupees for a coat of paint every year," he retorts.
"Besides," adds Khojeste, "agiary lands are not commercial properties, they were donated as religious endowments for the community."
Anahita Desai, along with husband Yazdi, has been at the frontlines of the legal battle against Hilla Builders.
"The atmosphere of the Lalbaug agiary is destroyed," she says, adding, "The well used by devotees for their prayers and to feed the fire has run dry and the sacred bull's dwelling has been destroyed. Worst of all, they have broken down the heritage entrance portico. The new entrance, on the north-south axis, is theologically invalid." WAPIZ believes if the temple lacks funds, trustees should follow the route of appeal to the community.
Jimmy Mistry, founder Parsi Resource Group, represents what some might refer to as the modern voice. "What's the point of community lands if they can't be used towards community needs like housing?" he asks.
The first priority according to him should be to house the community's mobits or priests. "Priests are poorly paid; the least we can do is house them decently," he says. It's not just the priests Mistry wants to house.
"There is a general shortage of housing for Parsis, and if we admit our population should grow then good housing at favourable rates is a good way to encourage young men to have large families," he says.
Builders benefit from a 25-30 per cent subsidy on the purchase of agiary lands which is then passed on to the buyer.
About 40 per cent of Mumbai's Parsis live in baugs or subsidised trust-owned complexes. Baugs were originally styled after the socialist principles governing the community Kibbutzim of Israel.
For a community that staunchly believes that inter-religious marriage weakens the ethnic fabric, and does not allow conversions, baugs served as a way to ensure the community controlled their socio-religious ethnicity.
Today, despite a declining population, the community is struggling to house deserving Parsis. And in some cases, there is as much as a 20-year waiting period.
Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP) owns about 16 baugs in the city, accounting for about 4,200 tenements, the second largest landlords in the city after the Port Trust.
According to Khojeste, despite there being a merit-rating test for potential residents, with a preference for lesser-privileged Parsis, most baug residents are far from even being lower middle-class. "It's an artificial scarcity heightened by residents protected under the Rent Control Act," he adds.
The BPP is appealing to affluent residents in the baugs to vacate their premises, incentivising them by two-thirds of the next deposit. This rarely works. Siloo Batliwala (name changed) lives in Cusrow Baug where her parents have been residents for decades. She owns a 1,700 sq ft apartment in prime residential space in Colaba which stays locked and unused.
"If my husband and I move out, we will lose it after my parents' time," she remarks, reflecting the sentiments of those accustomed to the unconditional succour provided by trusts.
"Residents are paying as little as Rs 300 a month even today," laments Khojeste. Most Parsi baugs are in dire need of attention. "The BPP undertakes annual losses of Rs 1.5 crore for maintenance costs that is not borne by residents," says Godrej Dotivala, spokesperson, BPP.
To offset the declining corpus and create new housing, trusts are being forced to use up the large, open spaces within the baugs to construct newer housing developments.
The Khareghat Baug Trust sold plots of land to builders for Spenta and Shanazeen, high-end housing for affluent Parsis. And the BPP itself has constructed new complexes within Godrej and Pantaki baugs. "This is the only way for us to increase our asset base," says Dotivala.
Still, for the greater part of the community, none of the worries of housing can justify the violation of the sanctity of the abodes of their holy fires. "All our agiaries with high FSI (Floor Space Index) will invariably be targetted," says Khojeste.
Mistry makes his point, "Enough of our land has been encroached without us being able to do anything about it. We might as well lay down plans for developing these lands. Transparency of operation can always be developed into the system".
The fight for Mumbai's 44 fire temples is only going to get more contentious.