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HIGH ACHIEVERS: It's sad this extraordinary community is facing extinction
A TOP official of the Zoroastrian community told the Mumbai High Court recently that its definition of a poor Parsi was one who earned less than Rs90,000 (RM5,000) per month.
This is many times more than India's per capita income of US$1,400 or roughly Rs70,000 annually.
The Mumbai Parsi Punchayet's contention in a legal dispute has triggered a debate.
Is the community India's richest? It does have poor members. But then think of Tata, Godrej, Pallonji, Wadia, Avari and Bhandara of Pakistan, Lord Karan Bilimoria of Britain -- to name only the industrialists and businessmen.
For all the riches, only partly visible in the billions in institutionalised philanthropy, the community, however, is fast losing its own visibility.
Having studied at The Bharda New High School (established 1891), grown up with the poriahs (boys) and a Wolf Cub and Scout with the 15th East Bombay, I find it disturbing that one of the world's smallest communities, whose all-round contribution far outweighs its numbers, is headed for extinction by the end of the century.
Apprehended for a long time, it is now confirmed by renowned demographer Dr Ashish Bose. Basing his analysis on last year's India census figure of 61,000, the largest concentration worldwide, and a decline of 12.35 per cent since 2001, Bose estimates that the Parsis will be reduced to 34,000 by 2051.
Writing in Power Politics magazine, Bose quotes his own studies plus the scholars at the International Institute For Population Sciences.
According to them, the main cause for the decline is the very low total fertility rate (number of children born per woman), which is 1.12 among Parsis.
The crude birth rate of the Parsi population was estimated to be 9.4 per thousand population during 1986-1991. This declined to 7.8 during 1991-96 and further down 6.4 in 2001-2006.
One out of every 10 Parsi women is childless in the age group 45-49, compared with one among every 20 women childless for the total Indian population as per the 2001 census.
"Today, the community faces the threat of extinction -- for reasons that are linked to the belief structure of their clergy. Zoroastrianism is a non-proselytising religion -- there are no converts. One can only be born into it," says Mumbai-based Parsi filmmaker Soonie Taraporwala.
The trend in other countries is similar. Recorded by local community associations, approximate Parsi populations are: Britain, 5,000; United States, 6,500; Canada, 4,500; Singapore, 300; Australia, 300; Pakistan, 3,000; Hong Kong, 150; and Kenya, 80.
Badly divided on how to retain its pristine nature, the community's leaders hit upon the need to provide housing to young married couples in Surat, Gujarat. Sixty babies were recently added to the dwindling number.
According to tradition, the present-day Parsis (Pars, of Persia) descend from the Zoroastrians of Khorasan region in northeastern Iran. They immigrated to India during the 10th century to escape the conquering Arabs. The need to open new avenues of trade also prompted them to move eastwards.
According to Qessa-ye Sanjan (The Story of Sanjan), the only available account recorded six centuries after they arrived on India's west coast, the local king welcomed them to "mix like sugar in milk" with his populace.
His stipulations were: adopt the local language (Gujarati), their women to wear local dress (the sari) and that they cease to bear arms. So, they took to trade and farming.
They responded to overtures from the Mughal kings and later to the early British settlers, taking up shipping, banking, construction and brokerage. They were the pioneers who shaped Mumbai.
Literate, industrious and not averse to leaving shores unlike the traditional Hindus, they became indispensable to Britain's global reach. One of their tasks was carrying opium to China.
But they also fought the British: Dadabhai Navroji, Dinshaw Mehta, Bhicaji Cama among them.
It would take a full page and more to list only the names of Parsis who have made an outstanding contribution to independent India's economy, defence, music, literature, science, sports and cinema. Their reach is now global.
And yes, their philanthropy. Although all faiths preach piety and charity, the Parsis ("thy name is charity") lead. It is riches well earned, well spent.
The fear that the Parsis are becoming quickly unknown, or stereotyped, is real. Parzor Foundation -- parzor means Parsi-Zoroastrian -- aims at preserving this vulnerable human heritage.
It will be tragic if their population dwindles to almost zero by the end of this century, says Bose.