The death of an 86-year old woman living in a trust-run housing colony in Colaba recently made news in the Parsi newspapers - not because she was a notable member of the community, but because after she died a lonely death in a hospital, the trust that manages the housing colony refused to accept claims that she had living heirs.
The body of the woman was declared ‘unclaimed’ and kept in a morgue attached to the Towers of Silence cemetery while an announcement was made in community newspapers. The dispute went to the local police when a person claiming to be her relative filed a complaint that he was not allowed to perform her funeral rites by the trust that manages the cemetery and also the housing colony. The body was interred in the cemetery after the police intervened.
While people living and dying alone is not unusual, the Parsis have a disproportionate number of single-person households. Though there are no exact statistics on the number of people who live alone, it is estimated that 30 per cent of the population is over 65 years old. A paper presented in 2009 at an international population conference by the Indian Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, gives clues on why such a large number of them live alone. Using statistics from the 2001 census and other studies, the paper said that one out of five men and one out of 10 women in the Parsi community remained single even by age 50 compared to almost universal marriages among other Indians. Also, while one among 20 women in the general Indian population is childless, the proportion in the Parsi community is one out of every ten women.
“This is an ageing community; many people are living alone. In an ageing and dwindling community with lots of assets, there will obviously be cases where strangers will claim to be heirs. These disputes over properties were always there, but it has become more numerous now,” says Jehangir Patel, editor of the community weekly Parsiana.
Recently, there have been at least two cases where multiple claimants have eyed property left behind by people who had no known close relatives. Dinshaw Mehta, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayat trust that manages the Colaba housing colony and many others across the city said that there are two or three such cases every year. “There are always people waiting for (single) senior citizens to die. They (property claimants) pay the electricity or other bills of these people for some time and when the person dies, they stake their claim to the property as relatives,” said Mehta.
In case of the woman from Colaba, she had been living alone after divorce. She left no will. “She lived in a Punchayet (trust) flat and since the trustees were alert, they came to know when people professing to be relatives made claims to her body. But in case of people living in their own flats, incidents like this will never be reported. There have been cases where even servants have stolen or claimed houses and other property of their dead employers,” said Patel.
The person who said he was a distant relative of the Colaba woman said in his defence that he had no claims on her property. “She was indeed a relative of my mother. She (the deceased) had asked me to do her last rites. Is it a crime to do the religious rites of a dead person?” he asked, alleging that the trust had sealed the Colaba flat even when she was in the hospital.
But the trustees say that they did what they had to do. “We have to protect our property,” said Mehta.