Zoroastrians must keep the fire ablaze

Funerals are the only constant for Zoroastrians in Pakistan. For a community of less than 1,800 — last recorded in 2006 in a research conducted by KE Eduljee — the announcement comes faithfully almost once every month. The timings are noted in chalk on a designated blackboard — one in almost every colony — and those who read it first pass on the information to others. The news of birth, on the other hand, comes with an element of surprise.

At the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress held in Mumbai in 2013, it was announced that the global population of Zoroastrians was less than 140,000, one-third of whom are aged above 60.

India, home to the largest Parsi population (Zoroastrians who fled to Iran in the seventh century AD after Muslims rose to power) has witnessed a decline from 114,000 Parsis in 1941 to 69,001 in 2001, according to their last fully published census.

Following this trend, the 2013 birth-and-death ratio among Indian Parsis was 735 deaths compared to an abysmal 174 births. While the decline in population has not been documented in Pakistan, evidence of shrinking numbers is indisputable.

The Saddar area in Karachi, which was once dotted with tea shops, bakeries and restaurants run by Zoroastrians, is now a shadow of the legacy many have left behind.

Even Parsi stalwarts, including the likes of Karachi’s first mayor Jamshed Nusserwanji Rustomji Mehta and the widely revered Ardeshir Cowasjee, who were once visible on the societal forefront, participating in politics and making notable contributions to cultural discourse, have gradually faded away.

To prevent the decline of possibly the world’s smallest religious community, in 1999 Unesco initiated the PARZOR (Parsi-Zoroastrian) project in India. This was to create awareness regarding dwindling numbers and to revive interest for the cause within the community, country and globally. The project has since become a catalyst for change with its biggest success being the launch of the Jiyo Parsi scheme in 2013.

An initiative of the Indian government, backed by the PARZOR Foundation and Bombay Parsi Panchayat, the programme primarily targets the community’s married couples, encouraging them to procreate, and provides financial support for fertility treatment, if needed. For families with an annual income of INR1,000,000 and below, the government has assured 100% financial assistance, which is slashed to half for families whose income falls within the bracket of INR1,500,000 to INR2,000,000. In total, a sum of INR100 million will be spent over a period of four years.

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