On 19 December, roj Ardibehesht mah Amardad (Shenshai), the Delhi Parsi community marked the fiftieth anniversary of the installment of the holy fire in its agiary, the Kaikhushru Pallonji Katrak Dar-e-Meher. Celebrations fell on two particularly cold and foggy days but that did not keep away community members, who came in large numbers to attend lectures, panel discussions, and entertainment. The Delhi Parsi Anjuman also hosted several political figures including Karan Singh, member of Parliament; Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi; and Salman Khurshid, law minister (who graciously stayed and watched performances put on by the Farohars, Delhi’s youth group, before rushing off to a 10pm cabinet meeting). On the evening of 18 December, Yezdi Karanjia’s theatrical troupe from Surat staged the Parsi natak ‘Ghar Ghungro ane Ghotalo’ before a packed audience.
Two of the high priests, Dasturji Framroze Kotwal and Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor, were in attendance. Dasturji Kotwal’s attendance was particularly significant since, in 1961, he had helped consecrate the fire. Dasturji Kotwal recalled that the alat, or ritual implements, and consecrated hom twigs were brought to Delhi via automobile from the Anjuman Atash Behram in Bombay. Priests conducted the yasna ceremony over four days as well as the seven-hour Vendidad ceremony. On the fourth day, the holy fire was carried in procession to the sanctum santorum of the new agiary. Dasturji Kotwal also mentioned that Delhi specifically chose to have a lower-grade dadgah fire inaugurated: in case the anjuman could not find a priest, a layperson could step forward and tend the fire.
One issue, in particular, seemed to dominate panel discussions and lectures: the state of the Parsi priesthood. Dasturji Kotwal observed that ‘the priesthood has dwindled drastically.’ Unless something is done quickly, the priesthood will be in real danger of extinction. ‘Without priests, there can be no Zoroastrian religion,’ he stated, emphasizing the priesthood’s role in preserving Zoroastrian traditions, rituals, and a corpus of religious knowledge. Dasturji Dastoor argued that ‘the laity have forgotten the priests completely’ and recalled how his own father had to seek out the support of various charities in order to get a surgery done, as he was unable to pay for it himself. Similarly, Dr. Shernaz Cama, director of Parzor, recalled how the late Dasturji Meherjirana had to hitch rides on the back of a bicycle in order to get around Navsari, something that greatly shocked the two Kashmiri photographers that had accompanied her to visit the Meherjirana Library. ‘You call yourselves an enlightened community? We’d be ashamed to have this happen in ours,’ they told Dr. Cama.
There were also calls for reform and liberalization amongst the priesthood. Ervad Yezad Kapadia, vice president of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman, noted that ‘no religion can survive without adapting itself. Certain things practiced in the past need to change.’ In particular, Kapadia argued that the priesthood needs to concern itself with making the religion relevant for its present-day adherents; it also needs to accept all children born from interfaith marriages. Kapadia’s views found a large degree of support within the audience.
Bombay Parsi Punchayet chairman Dinshaw Mehta briefly described a new trust being established for financially supporting the Parsi priesthood. Mehta anticipates that the trust will need an annual operating budget of Rs. 60 million (approximately US$1.14 million) and therefore appealed for financial contributions from the Parsi community. Dasturji Kotwal, who will serve as the chairman of the trust, mentioned that its first priority will be to strengthen the Dadar Athornan Institute, which is now practically the only functioning institution for training new Zoroastrian priests.
Thanks to Jehangir Cama of Delhi for contributions to this article. And thanks to the Delhi Parsi Anjuman and members of the Delhi Parsi community for their kind hospitality and continued support for the present writer.
See news coverage and photographs on the Delhi Parsi Anjuman’s website.
Udvada village currently sits a comfortable distance away from the messy industrial and commercial development that has sprung up around National Highway (NH) 8, a good eight kilometers to the east. For the moment, the village can still be accessed via narrow country roads that wind through orchards and wooded areas.
This might all soon change. For the past year, a local consortium, Nucleus Developers Private Limited, has threatened to turn an expansive plot of land northeast of the village into a sprawling compound, replacing orchards and farmlands with brick and concrete, and threatening to dramatically alter the rural ambience of Udvada village.
The story of the current Udvada land controversy is long and complex. Without relevant court documents, it can be an extremely confusing case to follow, compounded by the rumors and unverifiable statements that have flown back and forth in the community over the past few months. The account I reproduce below is based on reputable news reports and conversations I have had with many Parsi community leaders over the past several months. In spite of this, I have still had great difficulty piecing together the facts. A lack of hard facts and transparency, and the widely diverging narratives on the identity of Nucleus Developers and their intents, only confirms—in my mind—the murkiness of affairs that surround this project.
Nucleus Properties currently owns an area of approximately 168 acres zoned for farming, which, according to a comprehensive article published by Parsiana in June 2011, is now the site of expansive orchards (wadis) consisting of some 7,000 to 12,000 trees. As satellite maps reveal, this is currently one of the densest concentrations of green cover immediately bordering Udvada village. While one corner of this property is only a few minutes’ walk from the Iranshah Atash Behram, in the direction of Dastoor Baug and Ashishvangh Hotel, the land spreads out to the north and west to almost touch the sea. The 38 acres closest to the Atash Behram were originally owned by the Shree Baug-e-Iranshah Trust (which is different from the Udvada Samast Anjuman, the local Parsi organization. In response to accusations that the organization should never have allowed the disputed land to slip out of the control of the Parsi community, the Samast Anjuman has on several occasions clarified that it has never owned any of the property now in dispute). In 1966 it was sold to a Jamnadas Nagardas Modi, who in turn sold it to Lallubhai Jogi, a locally known figure, under whose tenure the property reached its current dimensions. Jogi sold the land to Nucleus in July 2010.
Parsiana, along with Vada Dasturjis Khurshed Dastoor and Peshotan Mirza, stated that Nucleus’ original plan was to set up some sort of factory—either a garments or a plastics factory—here. Aside from the desultory effects on nearby Iranshah, the project would have wreaked havoc on Udvada’s fragile environment, depleting groundwater reserves (the same reserves used by Iranshah’s wells, by the way) and potentially accelerating the process of coastal erosion in the region. Not to mention that the development would have been legally questionable—the land is specifically zoned for agricultural use and requires government approval if it is to be converted for other uses.
In spite of this, Nucleus had secured permission from local authorities, namely, the deputy collector of Valsad, for conversion from non-agricultural use. In a statement released in February 2011, the Samast Anjuman noted:
Udvada Samast Anjuman found it surprising that whilst in normal circumstances change of tenure of land from ‘agricultural land to nonagricultural’ is a long drawn out process, in the present case the same was done speedily. Udvada Samast Anjuman therefore decided to take up the matter with the district authorities and the Government of Gujarat to enquire into the speedy manner in which the tenure of the land was changed from agriculture to non agriculture and that too so very close to sacred Shreeji Pak Iranshah. The authorities have been reminded that they had some years earlier designated Udvada as ‘Pavitra Yatradham’ [place of holy pilgrimage] on account of Shreeji Pak Iranshah being located there.
As Dastoor told Parsiana, the collector of Valsad overturned the deputy collector’s approval after the Parsi community registered its outrage. Once the story hit the news, Nucleus apparently backpedaled and stated that they only wanted to build farmhouses on the property. Meanwhile, Nucleus filed an appeal with the Gujarat Revenue Tribunal, which overturned the collector’s decision. At the same time, however, the Tribunal issued an order that ‘status quo’ be maintained as on the date of the order, which I understand to mean that Nucleus is prevented from further development of the property for the time being (I have not been able to locate the Tribunal’s order through legal search engines, and the Tribunal’s website has not been updated since 2010). According to well-placed sources in the community, Nucleus has not as yet taken the next possible step of moving the Gujarat High Court on the matter, and thus the situation is deadlocked.
The Samast Anjuman, for its part, has tried to interest the highest echelons of the Gujarat government in its case. The land controversy was unmistakably in the background when Iranshah’s 1290th salgreh (anniversary) was celebrated on 24 April 2011 with chief minister Narendra Modi as the guest of honor. ‘Today, once again, when the sacred fire was facing a different kind of threat, [the] Government of Gujarat at the behest of its unparalleled and dynamic Chief Minister Shri Narendra Modi has risen to the occasion to assure its safety,’ Dastoor stated in a message he issued on the occasion of the salgreh.
Just how big is 168 acres? On its website, Nucleus has a schematic diagram of its proposed development, divided into 128 plots for farmhouses (see Image 2). They have, perhaps wisely, not indicated how the property compares in size to the village of Udvada. I have attempted to do so in the maps included here. In Image 3, I have traced the rough borders of the Nucleus site onto a satellite map of the Udvada area. In Image 4, I have superimposed Nucleus’ schematic diagram into this rough trace. It is readily apparent how this development would completely dwarf the existing village of Udvada. The developers themselves acknowledge on their website that their property is ‘double the size of the entire Udvada Village.’
In its development proposals, Nucleus has already had to make some concessions to the Parsi community. It has, according to its website, earmarked the 25 acres closest to Iranshah for ‘a beautiful garden for Parsis and other villagers of Udvada with parking space for vehicles bringing passengers to pay homage to Iranshah, etc.’ To their credit, Nucleus has also closed the main entrance to the property, situated just beyond Dastoor Baug (see Image 1), and made a new entrance one kilometer away, in response to fears of increased traffic right next to Iranshah.
In spite of these concessions, the project is still a cause for great concern. In a message posted on their website, addressed to ‘The Respected Parsi Community, Respected Elders & Dear Young Intellectuals,’ the directors of Nucleus, Pramod Banka and Salim Kherani, argue that their project has been ‘misunderstood.’ But the tenor of the rest of their letter only raised the sense of alarm for the present writer. After praising new boxy residential developments in Udvada that have shattered much of the village’s historical ambience, the directors explain away Dasturji Dastoor’s concerns about increased traffic by pointing out that the complex’s new entrance is now one kilometer away from Iranshah. No thought is given to the obvious uptick in traffic that will occur in the village, especially when the developers plan to open a parking lot on the grounds closest to the Atash Behram.
The developers further note that the farm houses will ‘be purchased only by the Elite Class of People from Cities of Mumbai, Surat, Baroda, Ahmedabad, etc.’ [sic] and will not serve as permanent homes. But one wonders whether there really will be such a great demand for these farm houses when upwards of 40 percent of existing houses in Udvada village, by one estimate given in the Zoroastrian Information Centre, are currently vacant and abandoned. And, if the farm houses are indeed restricted to ‘the Elite Class of People,’ there is even more worry that Udvada’s limited infrastructure and resources might come under great strain.
The remainder of Nucleus’ letter is bizarrely threatening in tone:
Now that the matter is in court, we shall be compelled to fight our case. It is very pertinent to note that, in Udvada, of the 33 [new] Residential Buildings which have come up, majority of them belong to Parsi Community and almost 70 % to 80 % of these buildings are illegal structures constructed without any regard to the law of the land. We have gathered all the evidences, using Right To Information Act, about these properties. Now, if we are harassed, even if our project is the most genuine and legally tenable, then, we shall also be compelled to move legally against these illegal projects where not only these vested interest persons (Vada Parsi Dastoorji [Dastoor] and his associates) and other Members of Parsi Community will suffer, a few other innocent people from the Udvada Village will also suffer. And with that, an unnecessary tension will be created in Udvada and an anti-Parsi environment will also crop up. If this happens, it will be very dangerous for all of us.
(I am unable to confirm whether, as Nucleus claims, so much new Parsi construction is illegal. Dasturji Dastoor disputed this figure when he spoke to Parsiana.)
Nucleus continues by raising allegations against Dasturji Dastoor:
And dear Readers, do you know why the Vada Parsi Dastoorji and his associates are creating hurdles for our project ? Its just because these very people want us to sell our entire Project Land to them at a price below our purchase price. And they are threatening us that if we will not sell the land to them at below cost, then they will not allow us to do any development activity on our project land.
Dastoor explained the Anjuman’s stance to Parsiana, and an excerpt of the article is given below:
‘We are ready to purchase the land at a reasonable price…we don’t want to cause any nuksaan (loss)’ to the present purchase ‘but we will not pay double the price,’ Dastoor avers. He claims that the sale price from the previous owner Lallubhai Jogi to Nucleus was finalized at Rs. 37,50,00,000 (US$8,333,333) or around Rs. 22,50,000 an acre! But Kherani envisions selling plots to individual buyers at Rs. 500 to 600 a sq. ft. At 43,560 sq. ft. to an acre, the price works out to Rs. 2,40,000 an acre! If construction of homes is to be done Nucleus would charge an additional Rs. 600 to 700 a sq. ft. Thus the built up cost would work out to around Rs. 1,200 per sq. ft. The current price for an ownership flat in Udvada is around that amount.
Exorbitantly high real estate prices, unprofessional PR, threatening language, and insinuations—something does not add up here.
In January, when I spoke to the Anjuman’s advocate in the land controversy case, Rustom Marshall, he stated that the easiest resolution to this dispute is also the most difficult: purchase of the land from Nucleus by a creditable third party keen on maintaining the agricultural nature of the land. For the moment, the Nucleus case remains with the Gujarat Revenue Tribunal. And, as opposed to the case of a few months ago, it currently incites less discussion and provokes less interest in the Parsi community. One hopes that the Parsis—be they in India or abroad—take keen interest and involvement in the case. The sanctity of their holiest fire temple hangs in the balance, after all.
In my next post, I will delve further into Nucleus controversy, outlining some of the main arguments made by the Udvada Samast Anjuman against the developers by utilizing some court documents at my disposal.
My thanks to Parinaz Madan, a Mumbai-based lawyer, for her help with this and future posts on this topic.
‘The Wadi at Udvada,’ Parsiana, 7 June 2011, pp. 32-33, 47-48.