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A will to live

With dating clubs and fertility clinics, the Parsi community - just about 60,000 now - is striving hard to survive the threat of extinction

Ranjita Ganesan 

By six in the evening, dozens of senior citizens assemble on concrete benches across the seven-acre vicinity of Cusrow Baug, the queen of Parsi colonies. Sprawled by the sea in South Mumbai's posh Colaba neighbourhood, a steady breeze wafts past the colony's arrangement of three-storey buildings. Some elders exchange pleasantries before falling silent and scanning the surroundings, while the more adventurous gather at the clubhouse to trade views on the previous day's cricket match or play a game of cards. Only a handful of children are around, on the swings or football ground. Like the 79-year-old baug and most of its residents, the Parsi community is largely aged.

The trend first struck Delhi University professor and researcher Shernaz Cama a decade ago when she began travelling with a UNESCO team in Parsi settlements in Gujarat and the Deccan. "Entire mansions were lying empty and for days we didn't see any children." Over 31 per cent of Parsis are elderly and only one in nine families has a child below the age of 10. Population fell from 114,900 in 1941 to 69,601 in 2001 and a further 10-12 percent dip is expected in the 2011 census. While religious beliefs - inter-married Parsi women and their children are expelled from the community - were believed to have caused most of the decline, researchers found a tendency among Parsis to not marry or marry late and have one or no children has more deeply affected demographic composition and fertility.

More than 30 per cent of Parsis are "never married." The average age of marriage in the community is 27 years for women and 31 years for men. If the total fertility ratio (TFR) remains at 0.88 (2.1 is required for a stable population), says Cama, the distinguished community could be reduced to a tribe. The current TFR means a Parsi woman has less than one child (0.88) in her entire child-bearing age.

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Many may imagine that an increase in population is the last thing India needs but the dwindling numbers of Parsis, known as much for their achievements as their eccentricities, has jolted both researchers and the government. There are 200 births against 850 deaths each year in the community. Priests to run the 50 fire temples in Mumbai are in short supply. Parsis are less visible in government, police and the armed forces now. In this view, the Ministry of Minority Affairs recently set aside Rs 10 crore for the Jiyo Parsi scheme to improve fertility among the Parsis.

The initiative is yet to take off but its director, Zinobia Madan, says enquiries have started trickling in. Her team aims to select hospitals to work with, create awareness at baugs and enroll couples for counselling and tests. Couples will get up to Rs 5 lakh for IVF treatment and young adults with diseases resulting in infertility will get Rs 15,000-25,000 for treatment. Those with one child will be encouraged to plan another. After attempts to raise TFR start bearing fruit, the scheme will widen to include ways of decreasing deaths, says Madan. A previous initiative by the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP) to treat infertile couples is reported to have resulted in 222 pregnancies.

While young Parsis are keen to help arrest the population decline, they find it hard to overlook education and housing costs. "We cannot have children just to save the community," says a recently-wed Parsi woman who does not wish to be named. Expenses on caring for the elderly and busy work lives are other reasons prompting couples to delay having children. Parsi youth must be given encouragement for marriage and having families, says 31-year-old Dinyar Patel, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, who has studied the reasons behind the population decline. "All community organisations urgently need to focus and allocate resources on young adults, giving them the opportunity to meet and highlighting the nature of our demographic problems."

Youth-oriented efforts have not been uniformly successful. Participation in BPP's monthly matrimonial meets for single Parsis, now in its fourth year, fell from 90 at the start of 2013 to 36 in a recent outing. Of them, only six were women. "Girls have high expectations of qualification and income from a partner, so it is hard to find a match. Many back out saying they signed up entirely at the behest of their parents," says organiser Zarin Havewala. So far, the effort has led to 11 marriages.

Participation is higher in Zoroastrian Youth Next Generation (ZYNG), which aims to let young Parsis mingle in an environment that does not stress on matrimony. The group with 500 members has met 50 times in four years for sports events, community service and socials. "People are cagey when it comes to announcing a relationship but we hear of quite a few successes," says committee member Viraf Mehta. Especially for those who do not live in colonies, ZYNG events are a good way to meet fellow Parsis, says 24-year-old Parinaz Madan. The baugs are also holding small events to address the population problem -children of the Jer Baug prayer group enacted a play on the importance of marriage and the Cusrow Baug United Sports & Welfare League has invited a psychiatrist to impart parenting skills to students and young adults in November.

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While often recognised as a rich and industrious community, Parsi history stretches far beyond its years in the country, says Cama. As small, old Parsi pockets are in danger of disappearing, the organisation has been working to record what is left of the 3,500 years of Zoroastrian language, tradition and heritage there.

The community modernised rapidly and its situation mirrors that of any developed society, says Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana magazine. Parsis like to live comfortably, enjoying the best of education and spacious homes. Since moving from business to services, their ability to afford these has dipped, says Rustom Banker, a former bank official and secretary of Cusrow Baug. BPP tries to provide housing to newly-married Parsi couples with low incomes. It also awards couples Rs 3,000 if they have a second child and Rs 5,000 for a third. To firm up their will to have children, couples will need more in the form of assurances like subsidised education, scholarships and housing. Jiyo Parsi Director Madan is optimistic. "As the effort progresses, I am sure wealthy Parsis will come forward to contribute towards it." Cama suggests colonies can be developed in other parts of the city and in Gujarat.

Experts admit the population decline cannot be reversed but say its pace can be slowed. Dinyar Patel, who is set to wed this year, says, "Our population decline is so steep, and our community is already so tiny that any marriage that we can promote and any birth we have in our community is a small sign of hope."

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First Published: Fri, October 25 2013. 21:45 IST