Businesses held by diminishing races in a crisis to stay afloat

Ratan Tata is used to being feted. So when shareholders showered effusive eulogies in the mid-August annual general meeting, the managing director of the country’s largest conglomerate hardly batted an eyelid. Basking in the assorted praise where people implored, “Don’t leave us” or “We cannot lose our Ratan,” Tata said he will step down by December 2012.

By Nupur Amarnath, Economic Times

After that, if he stays on in an advisory role is another issue. The real issue is that the organisation that JRD Tata helped build in the early 20th century and Ratan Tata helped chisel may have to make its peace with the fact that its next in line successor may not be a Parsi. There is speculation that, given the group’s increasing global focus, the choice need not be an Indian. Tata himself has clarified that the new chief need not be either a Parsi or even a Tata. The Parsis are a wealthy business community in India. And the community is shrinking.

Professor Sayeed Unisa in the department of mathematical demography and statistics at the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) in Mumbai says that the population of Parsi community was 111,791 in 1951; it declined to 69,601 in 2001. Projected population based on estimated births and deaths shows that the community’s population will shrink to 40,000 by 2041. “The community has one of the lowest fertility (0.99 in 1999) in the world. This is because of very high non-marriage and late marriage,” he says.

The Parsis’ isn’t a unique case. Businesses held by diminishing races all over the world are in a crisis of sorts to manage to stay afloat. The Greek-Australian community in Greece is dealing with issues where the second and third generation does not want to be involved with community organisations. Religion doesn’t bind them and the culture is alien to them.

Enter organisations like the World Zoroastrian Chamber of Commerce (WZCC). Yazdi Tantra, the technical director of the WZCC says that while bigger corporations like Tatas and Godrejs are secure as they have a brand image, smaller businesses and home-base operations face a threat as the younger generation may or may not want to carry on the enterprise.

Tantra, along with WZCC members and some eminent Parsi industrialists, is trying to rekindle the flame of entrepreneurship among the Parsi youth. In 2009, WZCC launched a business plan contest, inviting Parsi youth to come up with business ideas that the community will help to promote and develop. “Since then, we have introduced many hand-holding schemes to encourage Parsi youth to rediscover their spirit of entrepreneurship. This year we have launched an entrepreneur development programme to promote the same,” Tantra says. “Today the attitudes have changed. Earlier the Parsis were the pioneers in entrepreneurship, but maybe the license raj or fighting the government for privileges changed that,” notes research scholar Pronoti Chirmuley at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has been researching on the Parsis for the last three years.

To involve the young, the Parsi community has initiated programmes to strengthen and revive traditional practices by teaching the younger generation the required skills. “Parsi embroidery—gara and cor—is a unique traditional craft. This skill is being promoted by UNESCO-assisted PARZOR, a non-profit research organisation projecting vulnerable heritage,” Pheroza J Godrej, an eminent Parsi who has also co-authored A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion and Culture.

The dwindling numbers is not affecting the Parsis alone. There are many pure races in India that are getting battle ready to save their numbers. The Syrian Christians and Jews of Kerala and the Bohra Muslims of Gujarat are cases in point. In Kerala, first the Syrian Christians and then the Jews rose to high ranks of society through excellence in business. But their numbers too have been dwindling over the years, impacting the businesses they built. According to former senior demographer for the World Bank and honorary professor at the Centre for Development Studies Dr KC Zachariah, in 2009 the Kerala population was 32.5 million while the Syrian Orthodox were accounted at 6,94,000 only and Jacobites (another sect of Syrian Christians) was 6,05, 000.

Historian and anthropologist Professor George Menachery, an expert in the history of Kerala, says that in Kerala, the figures for Christians have dwindled from around 25 percent in say 1970 to 19 percent today. “There are only 52 Jews left in Kerala although there are half a dozen synagogues and cemeteries left in the State,” he says. The orthodox Christian and Jewish communities in the country are not a homogenous group and even in the Syrian Christians there are many denominations. Prof Menachery adds that except for the Knanaya community of central Kerala the other Syrian Christians are more or less of the same stock, although inter-cultural and inter-religious marriages are on the rise. While Parsis are mainly concentrated in Maharashtra and some pockets of Gujarat, Jews and Orthodox Christians are primarily situated in Kerala.

Prof Menachary claims that businesses that flourished because of the numbers in a family are the ones being increasingly affected. But Dr Zachariah says that while dwindling numbers of the Syrian Christians doesn’t affect business to a large extent but it does affect their representation to get any aid from the state, or to get noticed as community.

But clout is not restricted to numbers, says Zafar Sareshwala, chief executive officer of Gujarat-based Parsoli Corp Ltd, who hails from the minority community of Sunni Bohris. Having worked and travelled extensively to the UK and US since 1995, Sareshwala has noticed how the Jews in these countries, despite being a minority, have extended their sphere of influence. “In an increasingly globalising world, education—both men and women—not community will be the key differentiator,” he says.

Sareshwala, who runs a vocational guidance centre in Ahmedabad for the Class XII passouts to guide them for further studies started it as a service for Muslim youth but now entertains interests from other communities as well. Dawoodi and Sunni Bohras are an adventurous and enterprising community because of education, he believes. “India has a population of 1.75 million Muslims in all but they have no influence. To be counted, they have to build their sphere of influence which can only come through education,” he says.

Emigrations are cited as the leading cause for the dwindling numbers especially among the Jews in Kerala, where a sizeable chunk emigrated to Israel in 1962-70, says Aviv Divekar who runs Aftech Informatics in Gujarat and is a fifth generation Jew residing in India. Among the 40 families left in Gujarat, Divekar feels business has moved from the sense of community. “Jews came to India primarily as a trading community but as time passed most of them have taken to the service sector,” he says but refrains from calling it an attitudinal shift.

Some communities are responding to the threat by fighting back. Godrej specifies that the Bombay Parsi Panchayat has initiated a number of innovative programmes to curtail the trend. “There are holiday programme for youth called Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation (ZYNG), career guidance programme and a central employment bureau,” she says. The Panchayat has also got a matrimonial bureau, subsidised housing for young couples, fertility project run by Dr Anahita Pundole, a third child scheme, medical care for the elderly and home for the aged.

The Jews too have their own community organisations, Divekar tells us but they are not as active as the Parsis. “Jewish organisations conduct meetings to introduce young boys and girls or carry programmes out for education but not on a large scale,” Divekar says.

The diminishing races are fighting back. But as Prof Menachery says, “They are fighting a half-hearted battle and a losing one at that.”