Sun, Nov 06, 2016 - Page 15 News List

Tata spat adds to angst of India’s dwindling Parsis

By Vishal Manve  /  AFP, MUMBAI

Tata has long swelled the pride of India’s small Parsi community, but recent infighting and fears the conglomerate’s next chief will be an outsider is unnerving the rapidly dwindling group.

Mumbai’s famous but notoriously private Parsis are unhappy at the daily mudslinging between company patriarch Ratan Tata and his Parsi counterpart, former chairman Cyrus Mistry, following the latter’s unceremonious sacking last month.

“Parsis are upset because the battle between Mistry and Tata went public instead of staying as boardroom negotiations. We hope it is over soon,” community magazine Parsiana editor Jehangir Patel said.

Parsis are followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions. Zoroastrians believe in one god and worship in fire temples, believing fire to be a symbol of their god’s purity.

They first arrived in India more than 1,000 years ago after fleeing persecution in Persia.

They became one of India’s wealthiest communities, boasting a number of famed industrialists, including the internationally renowned Tata family synonymous with the financial rise of India’s commercial capital, Mumbai.

The community has also produced acclaimed Indian scientists and musicians, and its influence far exceeds its size.

However, late marriages and falling birth rates have sparked a demographic crisis that is threatening the group’s survival, with the number of Zoroastrians in India more than halving since 1940.

There are fewer than 60,000 in India, where most Zoroastrians live, and infighting between reformists and traditionalists about how to preserve the traditionally closed group is commonplace.

Tata and Mistry are pillars of Mumbai’s Parsi set and their spat appears to be adding to the angst that many Parsi-Zoroastrians feel about the community’s uncertain future.

“The feud is a letdown for the Parsi community as its number of role models and people in position of power reduces,” Patel said.

Tata Group is a sprawling US$103 billion steel-to-salt conglomerate founded under British colonial rule in 1868.

It operates in more than 100 countries and owns high-profile companies, such as Britain’s Jaguar Land Rover and Anglo-Dutch steel firm Corus.

Mistry, 48, was sacked as chairman of Tata Sons, the holding company of Tata Group, on Oct. 24, just four years after succeeding Ratan Tata to become its first chief who was not a member of the immediate Tata family.

Tata is said to have become increasingly frustrated by Mistry’s focus on divestments as he sought to reduce the sprawling group’s US$30 billion debt level.

Tata, 78, took interim charge and for more than a week the two camps have been trading bitter accusations that are not only threatening the conglomerate’s global reputation, but are also out of tune with the Parsi ethos of quiet respect and loyalty.

The feud risks being compounded by that Mistry is heir to the multibillion-dollar construction giant Shapoorji Pallonji Group, which is the largest single shareholder in Tata Sons, owning 18.4 percent.

Dinshaw Mehta, a former chairman of Mumbai’s leading Parsi organization, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, described Mistry’s removal as “ungraceful” and worries the subsequent conflict will be “self-destructive” for the company.

He has a bigger concern though — a non-Parsi leading India’s most famous family conglomerate.

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