The Curious Case of the Missing Parsi

Perceived as a community of mostly affluent number-crunching entrepreneurs, ironically, the biggest anxiety gripping Parsis in India these days is their dwindling numbers.

“The birth rate of the Parsis has dropped dramatically to below replacement levels. In 2013, the last year we have data for, we had just 195 births in the entire country and 950 deaths. We are a community on the edge,” says Dr Shernaz Cama of the Parzor Foundation, Delhi, a community organization mandated by the UNESCO to preserve Parsi Zoroastrian heritage.

 

The numbers game
Reversing the population decline won’t be easy for the community. It will involve a change in social attitudes for sure, says Dinyar Patel, a historian and PhD candidate at Harvard University. Over the past few decades, many Parsis chose to have fewer or no children, rues Patel.

“There was little family pressure to marry. There is a strong body of data to show that the Parsi population in India is declining owing to low fertility. This isn’t because of any biological or medical problems; rather, it is because so many Parsis choose to not marry, or marry late, or have few or no children. As a result, the community’s total fertility rate may now be as low as 0.88, whereas a total fertility rate of 2.1 is needed for replacement,” says Patel.
According to Villoo Morawala Patell, managing director of Avesthagen, Bangalore, which is conducting a genomic studies of India’s Parsis, the appallingly low birth rate has been driven by the a cocktail of cultural issues within the community.

“The tradition of marrying only within the community resulted in large numbers of people remaining unmarried in the 70s and 80s. That was when the decline began. At that time it was taboo to even think of marrying outside the community,” says Morawala Patell.

The Parsi community’s self-imposed exclusiveness isn’t helping matters. Conversions are taboo, intermarriage with members of other faiths is frowned upon and non-Parsis are not allowed inside fire temples.

In the last few decades, many clusters of Parsis, particularly in larger cities of western India, began staying in secluded gated communities called Baugs, insulated from other ethnicities.

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