Minority Commission Report on Parsis

18/04/2010 AND 02/05/2010


Despite the perceived general economic affluence of the community, there are reasons to believe that Parsis are a heterogeneous community in terms of their socio-economic status. The WPR (Work Participation Rate) of the community is the lowest among all religious minorities barring only Muslims. The growing dependency ratio, which is a fallout of the skewed demographic profile, has restricted the proportion of economically active population in the community. Poverty in the community may not be conspicuous due to the support extended by the Trusts / institutions. Provision of shelter at nominal rent has been one of the major help provided by such institutions. Hence, Parsi poor may not be visible on the streets or even in slums. However, certain sections of the community are economically disadvantaged and live on very low subsistence support.

Contrary to the general belief, this study reveals that there is a small fraction of the community which exists even below the poverty line (BPL) as per the official definition of poverty.

There are many Trusts / institutions apart from the Parsi Punchayets/Anjumans which strive to address the concerns of the poor. Information on the community-wise Trusts / institutions reveals that there are more than 1000 such institutions run by Parsis only in Mumbai as per the record of the Office of the Charity Commissioner. These institutions provide support to households in different forms, viz., subsidized housing, periodic maintenance doles, help for medical aid, help for meeting expenses on education or training, help for observing religious and other ceremonies, and loan for productive purposes / purchase of land and housing.

The criteria adopted by these institutions for considering the ‘deserving poor’ while disbursing aid include certain basic economic indicators like income of the family, number of dependents in the family, asset base of the family, health condition of the members etc. However, neither is there a consensus among these institutions regarding the notion of poor nor do they follow a very objective guideline while selecting the poor. While some of them adopt means testing for verifying the conditions of the poor, there are others who are not very particular about it.

The economic distress of the community has significant linkage with the changing demographic pattern. There are less than three members, on an average, in these sample households. More than one-fifth of them are just single member households. More than one-fifth of the two member households are either joint or extended families presumably consisting of members who are not currently married. Issues of marriage and fertility assume importance in this context. Information on marital status reveals that about one-fifth and more than one-fourth of the members of these households in the age group 41 and above and 31 to 40 respectively are never married. The unmarried members are much higher among the males than females. The distribution of ever married women by the number of surviving children shows that around 23% of these women do not have a single child and more than one-fifth of them have only one child.

The above mentioned adverse family characteristics have resulted in skewed age composition of the population and a high dependency ratio. Dependency ratio consists of the proportion of the population that is not economically active. The dependency ratio is 38, if the dependent age group is considered to be 0 to 14 and 65 and above. It is as high as 46, if the upper age bound is considered to be 60 and above. The sample households certainly have a relatively high dependency ratio in comparison to the community in general (24.1% as per Census, 2001 considering 0 to 14 and 65 and above as the dependent group). The old dependency ratio (65 and above) is three times that of young dependency ratio (0 to 14) for the sample households. The gap between young and old ratios is the highest in urban areas where for a single child there are three old persons. Health status of the aged remains an issue. Around one in eight families surveyed have reported cases of some form of disability. Most of these cases are multiple developmental problems afflicting the aged in the households.

Female headed households constitute one of the most vulnerable groups. Around one-third of the sample households are female headed. Out of them more than half are widows and more than one-fourth unmarried. Around 45% of them belong to single member households and about the same percentage do not have a single earning member and hence, no regular income.

The lack of educational and vocational training affects the labour market value of those in the working age group. Though, the literacy rate of the members of these households is high, very few of them have made it to higher education. It is evident from the study that a majority of them have a secondary school certificate and only about one-sixth of them have a graduation degree or above. Very few of them have reported having some vocational training. Hence, the lack of preparedness for the job market remains an issue with these sections of the community which compel them to rely on financial and other kinds of support.

This analysis reveals that a fraction of these households can be considered as poor even as per the strict official definition of poverty line. Around one-fourth of these households have reported not having a single earning member. A further probing reveals that a complex set of factors, viz., higher dependency ratio (69%), very low family size (1.63), higher proportion of female headed households (42%), relatively poor educational background, and comparatively low asset base compound the vulnerability of these households. Under these circumstances, a quarter of this group completely relies on financial and other aid for their survival, and that too, at a very subsistence level.

As per the self-assessment of poverty, which is influenced by the notion of relative deprivation, around two-thirds have reported facing hardships in meeting basic needs. Major causes of poverty as cited by the households, have been none or single earning member in the family, followed by casual nature of employment and health problems in the family.

Almost 50% of the respondent households reside in single room houses and only 15% reside in larger dwellings. More than one-fifth of the households do not even have a bank account. Information on consider durables reveal that around 16%, 30% and 70% of the households do not have TV, Refrigerator and Washing Machine respectively and less than 20% have a two wheeler. In total, 93% of the households, who have given information on this aspect, have reported 531 cases of receiving aid. On an average there are 2.19 cases of aid reported per household. Almost 55% of these households have reported receiving help from two or more sources. Cases of multiple aid in urban areas (62%) is almost twice that of the rural areas (31%). Such relief is received from 75 different Trusts/Organisations apart from 4 major Punchayets/Anjumans. Parsi Punchayets/Anjumans are providing relief in around one-third of the cases and the rest is being provided by other Trusts/institutions. Most of the households got information about the Trusts/Organisations and their schemes from their relatives/friends/neighbour.

A study of major purposes for which support is availed reveals that more than half of such cases are that of maintenance doles. In fact, more than 80% of the aid is extended either as maintenance doles, medical relief and combined cases of doles and medical relief. Maintenance doles remain more or less an urban phenomenon. In villages, only around 30% of the cases are those of maintenance doles / regular payments for medical purposes. One finds that more than 20% of cases in rural areas are that of loans and assistance for construction of house, purchase of land, and for productive purposes.

The support provided by the Trusts and other Organisations are both in cash and kind, though a majority of the cases (85%) are that of support in cash. An important finding has been that the support provided by various institutions is generally very meager. The analysis conducted for relief received in cash shows that in 85% of these cases, the amount is less than Rs.500 per month. Generally, monthly doles vary between Rs.100 to Rs.300. The information received from various organizations corroborates this fact. Relatively higher amounts are disbursed for medical and educational purposes. Given these facts, it is not surprising that the financial assistance received by households, as regular doles / medical assistance, does not constitute a large share of their income. Financial assistance is about 10% of the family income for half of the households, who have reported their income. Only for one-fifth of them, who have very low income, the support is to the tune of 50% or more. As stated earlier, a section of these households (6 to 7%) completely relies on financial aid.

There are certain sections of the community that are failed by the existing networks. The Parsi Punchayets/Anjumans have a conservative outlook and they only address the concerns of those who strictly follow the religious prescriptions regarding marriage and family. They practice selective exclusion while administering relief. One group clearly excluded in the process are those who marry outside the community and their off spring. The precarious conditions of some of them is evident from the recent death of a child due to malnutrition from a very poor family in Mumbai of a single mother deserted by the Parsi father, which created huge uproar from the community at such neglect : by the Trusts (Mumbai Mirror, 2009).

Secondly, there are several issues with the criteria adopted for the selection of the needy. Income below a certain threshold level remains the primary criterion, which is supplemented by other information like the number of dependents in the family, health conditions of the members and general living condition. There is a concern that these criteria are quite subjective. Many times, they make use of an ‘arbitrary equivalisation procedure’ to adjust income for different types and sizes of households. Cost of living differences between areas and sub-groups are not considered and a flat amount is offered to all. Between Trusts / organizations there is no similarity to approach.

Thirdly, one more issue with these kinds of relief has been that it is offered for very limited and standard purposes. Though housing represents the flagship scheme of most of the Parsi Trusts and organizations, it is not exclusively for poor families. Maintenance doles and support for regular help for medical purposes dominate the list. However, such support is very meager in amount and does not always lead to upward economic mobility of the recipients. BPP and a few other organizations have some schemes for loans for business and other productive purposes; however, its impact is yet to be visible. Most of the institutions admitted that the relief is very minimal to make any appreciable impact. Households are, therefore, forced to receive help from multiple sources.

There is a serious requirement at this stage to deliberate upon more productive ways of intervention. Families with at least one member in the working age group should be persuaded to take up some productive activities. Extension of credit, training, and other support during the course would have a long term impact. Several families can be assisted to move beyond the margins of poverty and break the cycle, if their members with at least secondary education can be helped to take up vocational education, including subsistence allowance, or to pursue a professional course to get early into a job.

Many families do not have a single member in the working age group. There is an urgent need to review the modalities of disbursing doles for this group. Assistance for daily maintenance are too meager and have only a nominal value. Many times in a city like Mumbai, recipients of such help spend half the amount on transport or on other procedures while submitting the application or collecting the amount. A very nominal amount distributed by the Trusts / organizations compel them to approach several institutions to glean a minimum basic amount. This certainly stigmatise them and some of them resign in the process.

Institutions should have proper coordination among each other for effective and meaningful intervention. Along with this, a revision in the amount is essential. Support should be extended in kind wherever feasible. The revision must take into consideration the inflation level and needs of the families. A notional amount does no good to either the organization extending it or the beneficiary, who is made a beggar in the process, having to go from one organization to another.

There are various sections of the community, who are vulnerable, Female headed households, families with only dependents and no regular source of income, families with ailing members represent vulnerable groups. Many of these families have multiple problems. There is a need for devising an objective approach for ranking these families on the basis of multiple parameters. These groups warrant specific attention and special mechanisms of intervention could be instituted for the more vulnerable in the form of not only financial aid but also counseling, training and other possible support.

Certain sections of the community are not extended support by Parsi Trusts / Organisations. Parsis married outside the community and their offspring are debarred from community level support. The study has found that even Parsi widows who had married outside the community are also not entitled to any support from these organizations. Many of them are facing economic and other hardship. There is a need for a more inclusive approach on the part of the Trusts/ Organisations.

Specific interventions from the community’s perspective

Linking the Parsi Trusts / Organisations with Public Institutions.

Introduction of Exclusive Schemes for Parsi Minorities.

Availability of Macro level Data on the Community

Need for a National Level Study on the Community

There is a need for the constitution of a High Powered Committee which would suggest a national level strategy for combating the demographic and other challenges that the community faces at the current juncture. Apart from addressing the demographic issues, there is a need for formulating an action plan for prioritizing educational and vocational training as these become crucial for empowering the younger generation. The present study highlights the fact that lack of such skills prohibits a section of the community in being gainfully employed. The respondent households have also expressed their dissatisfaction with the educational infrastructure. Such intervention would go a long way in ensuring employability of the working age population in the community.

(The above is an extract from the ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’ of this report commissioned by Dr. Mehroo Bengalee, Member, Minority Commission of India).

Courtesy : Jehangir Bisney

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