People across the world may be worried about the growing population of India which is all set to overtake the Chinese population by 2022 to become the world population champion, but the Indian government is worried about the dwindling population of its esteemed Parsi (Zoroastrian) community – numbering less than 69,000 (among 1.28 billion Indians!) in 2015 and declining at the rate of about 12% per decade. There is certainly something striking about the Indian Parsis – their contribution to Indian society is enormous looking at their minuscule numbers – and that’s why the government of India and Indian people are worried about survival of the Parsi community. Of course, elders of the community are also worried but for various reasons are unable to do much about it.
Parsis are mainly concentrated in Mumbai, where their population is estimated to be 40,000 – 45,000. The total fertility rate (TFR) in the Parsi community is only about 0.8 children per women, compared with the national average of 2.3 and the fastest growing community of Muslims – whose fertility rate is speculated to be over 3.0. An average fertility of about 2.1 is needed for population to remain stable; below which the population begins to shrink.
China (often applauded for its ‘very efficient’ population control through its One Child policy) with fertility of 1.5 (which is still declining) has already began to worry about the soon-to-unfold scenario of rising number of elderly and shrinking work force of youth that will adversely affect its future development prospects. Many Europeans countries and Japan are already facing similar population decline and aging population.
A Community committing Slow Suicide!
For demographers, the Parsi community is an anomaly in India. It boasts of the highest literacy rate and sex ratio in India. Parsi community’s demographic profile is similar to developed countries in having more middle aged and elderly population. This is in sharp contrast with national demographic profile which points to a young India.
Currently, over half of the Parsis are over 40, a third of all Parsis are over 60, more than 30% of the community never marries and most couples are either without children or have just one child. For every four Parsi deaths, there is just one birth – no wonder the community is facing the prospects of exinction.
Between 1951 and 2001, when India’s population increased by 185% the Parsi community shrunk by 39%. Today they are estimated to be less than 69,000 (which is the last official count in 2001) – just half of their numbers in the 1940s. Population experts predict that, if the current fertility trend continues, by 2050 there would be only around 20,000 Parsis left in India.
Zoroastrians who were in the millions in the pre-Islamic Persia are currently reduced to less than 140,000 globally. India, the ancient land of Hindus, is still the home to the largest number of Zoroastrians; other countries with Parsi presence are the land of their origin Iran (25,000), US (11,000), Afghanistan (10,000) and Pakistan (5,000). List of countries with Parsi Population
At the fertility rate of just 0.8, child birth in Parasi community is so rare that, when twins were born in 2014, it was something like headline newsin the community and for all those who know the state of affairs of Parasis well. By all indications Indian Parasi community is heading towards extinction, if things are allowed to go on as they stand today. Just to maintain the population at the current level, each Parasi woman would have to give birth to at least 3 children – similar to the Muslim community.
Yet, politically speaking, they never demanded any special favors from the government whether in the name of being minority or religion – it is in stark contrast with the Muslim community ever busy demanding public favors in the name of religion.
Who Are Parsis?
They came from Persia (Iran), so they are called Parsis. As a religious group Parsis are Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism (or Zarathustra) which evolved in the 6th or 7th century BC. In the pre-Islamic era, Zoroastrianism was the official state religion of Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian empires in the Persian region.
For Arabs who lack sounds of Ch, G, P, and Zh Parsi is Farsi! In India, however, Parsis did not become ‘Farsis’ because there is no phonetic problem.
Zoroastrianism has influenced later religious orders of the Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity and even Islam that ultimately destroyed it in the land of its origin, Persia. As followers of Islam spread their influence through force in Persia the last Zoroastrian ruler, Yazdagird III, was overthrown in 651 AD and Zoroastrians had to flee for safety.
Parsis’ principal scripture is Avesta which was created by Ahura Mazda. It is written in the Avestan language which resembles Vedic Sanskrit. Historians turn to Avesta to study how it originally shaped evolution of Christian and then the Islamic philosophies.
Indian Zoroastrians are believed to have arrived in India in the 8th and 10th century. They are speculated to have come from the port of Ormuz (Hormuz) to the Western coast of India in the Gujarat region at Sanjan. They first settled in Kathiawar in Gujarat and then moved south.
Parsis believe in the existence of one invisible entity (God) which is represented by the light of the Fire in their Fire Temple. They also believe that there are two forces in nature, the good forces (forces of light) and the evil forces (forces of darkness) – that are continuously at war with each other. They expect people to do good deeds and speak well so that the good forces win.
They consider fire, water, air and earth to be pure elements of nature which should be kept pure. Thus, they do not cremate or bury dead bodies; instead they leave them on high towers (Tower of Silence), specially built for this purpose, to be devoured by vultures.
1,200 Year Old Flame!
The holiest Zoroastrian site in India is the Fire Temple called Iranshah in a small town Udvada in the Western state Gujarat. In Iranshah a flame has been burning since about 800 AD.
Centuries ago, several hundred priests served Iranshah and a large number of Parsis lived in the village Udvada, but today their population is reduced drastically as they slowly moved to the business town Mumbai, which is just a few hours ride to the south. The Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to make this temple a protected national tourist site.
What Caused Parsis’ Population to Shrink
Parsis, Victims of Success?
The popular hypothesis is that the Parsi community is just a victim of its own success and openness to adopt modern lifestyle. Parsis are education and career loving people; as a result, both young men and women prefer to give top priority to their professional career – marriage and family come later. Consequently, only in the late twenties or often in the thirties they start considering marriage – however many decide to stay bachelor. Note that the average age of marriage for Parsi women is around 29-30 and for men it is 35 and about 30% never marry at all. Thus, Parsi community has the highest presence of bachelors and spinsters in any faith of the world.
Since most of their population is concentrated in Mumbai which is a costly city, the cost of living and raising kids is rather high. Coupled with career consciousness, it forces them to either have just one kid or stay childless.
If we juxtapose late and low prevalence of marriage and low fertility rates alongside rather high divorce rates it is not hard to understand why since the 1950s deaths have consistently outnumbered births every year, resulting in an aging and dwindling population.
Contrary to Christians and Muslims, the Parsi community doesn’t practice ‘conversion’ of people from other faiths into Zoroastrianism. Many attribute it to a pact the Parsi community signed with the Hindu rulers when they landed in Gujarat in the 10th century that one can be a Parsi only by blood. This endears Parsi particularly among the Hindus who view the philosophy of ‘conversions’ as an act of hostility by practitioners of foreign religions. History reminds them how in the Mughal rule Hindus were forced to adopt Islam through force – a practice still going on in neighboring Islamic Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The desire to keep the bloodline ‘pure’ often results in nearest cousin marriages or between uncles and nieces. Under Parsi laws, lineage passes through fathers but not mothers. Thus, kids of a Parsi woman married outside the community are not considered Parsi.
Therefore, various reasons can be blamed for the population decline of Parsis: late marriages, not marrying, marrying outside the community and low fertility; emigration is yet another major contributor.
Jiyo Parsis Scheme! – Government’s Effort to Save Parsis
Worried about Parsis’ dwindling population, in late 2013, the Indian government launched a Jiyo Parsi (Live Parsi) scheme under which rupees 100 million (around 1.5 million dollars) will be spent over 4 years for a 2-pronged approach – medical assistance to facilitate pregnancies and counselling-cum-advocacy to change Parsis’ mindset. The Parzor Foundation is responsible for implementation of the scheme with the help of Bombay Parsi Panchayat and other community organizations. The scheme will initially focus on the community in Mumbai, Gujarat and Delhi that would cover over 55,000 Parsis.
Of course, 100 million rupees is an almost insignificant fraction of the Ministry of Minority Affairs budget, but it represents Indian government’s interest to preserve the Parsi community. At the launch of the scheme, the minority affairs minister said: “This is a small step to pay our debt to the Parsi community for their contribution to the country. We cannot afford to lose this community.”
Medical assistance will consume bulk of the money and will go towards helping couples with fertility issues and involves free in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) or any other medical procedure needed for pregnancy for couples who have trouble conceiving and can’t afford the medical treatment. Under the scheme, a couple earning Rs 10 lakh annually will get 100% coverage, Rs 10-15 lakh 75% and Rs 15-20 lakh will get 50 % coverage). A panel of doctors will help with medical treatment.
Around 7% of the funds will be spent on counselling Parsis to change their mindset marriage and family and encourage bolder stand of early marriages and 2-3 children. Since about one-third Parsis marry outside the community which could exclude their children from the Zoroastrian faith and, legally, from identifying as Parsis, the Jiyo Parsi mission also aims to encourage them to marry within the community and then have kids. The counselling efforts also focus on early marriages, conceiving at the right time and training volunteers.
A similar amount will be spent on ad campaign to break the popular stereotype that dictates behaviour in this tiny community. According to director of Parzor Foundation, Shernaz Cama, the ad-campaign has shock value to make Parsis realize that if they don’t change their attitude, there will soon be no community.
The program hopes to facilitate at least 200 births in the 5 years. Ten children were born through the program in 2014, including a pair of twins. On a side note, it sounds funny to highlight 10 births in a country of 1.28 billion that wants its population to quickly come under control!
Reactions to the Ad Campaign
Zarathustra developed a world religion by opening minds, not calling for mass impregnation. The campaign is a shame. – Kayhan Irani
I have some unmarried Parsi friends and we have been trying for years to get them married to no avail! – Debu Purkaystha
The United Nations became concerned about the declining Parsi population in the 1990s and commissioned a scholar, Shernaz Cama, to probe the issue.
In 2010, the UNESCO started a program PARZOR for Preservation of Parsi Zoroastrian Heritage, and the UN General Assembly recognized Parsi New Year – March 21 – as the International Day of Novroz. It has called upon all countries to honour this festival’s significance by promoting peace and goodwill. ovroz is registered officially by the UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.
The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), which is a prominent Parsi organization in Mumbai looking after welfare of the community, also initiated efforts to encourage Parsis to have bigger families about a decade ago. Looking at the higher cost of living in Mumbai it started a scheme for paying the cost of raising children: 3,000 rupees per month to couples with two children and 5,000 per month to couples with three kids. It takes credit for 230 births so far after a decade. The Jiyo Parsi initiative of the government adds weight to such efforts.
Indian Parsis are truly wonderful people; their non-intrusive religious faith and their principles of peaceful coexistence vibe well with the ancient Dharma based culture of 950 million Hindus. Given their microscopic numbers, Parsis’ contribution to national progress is simply awe inspiring. Although their survival as a distinct group is basically a community problem, but rest of the Indians would love have more Parsis among them.
It sounds foolish when some people question use of public funds (mere 100 million rupees or 1.6 million dollars) for the welfare of Parsi community. In their selective amnesia, they conveniently forget how much Haz subsidy government of India annually gives to Muslims who count as many as 180 million and still growing rapidly!