India’s Parsees: Slow breeders


April 18, 2008



From The Economist print edition
Apr 17th 2008 | DELHI

Adherents of an ancient faith worry about its disappearance

TWO of India’s biggest business clans—Tata and Godrej—are Parsees, descendants of Zoroastrians, who fled the Muslim invasion of Persia for India more than 1,000 years ago. But well though some of its members have done, the Parsee community is dwindling. At the time of the 2001 census India had fewer than 70,000 Parsees, a 40% drop since 1941. Since then, the decline has accelerated. A survey suggests that only 99 Parsees were born in the year to August 2007, compared with 223 in 2001.

The community’s very success has played a part in its shrinkage. Young Parsees tend to put off marriage until they have established careers, “leaving time for two children only, if that,” says Mehroo Bengalee, a Parsee member of the government’s National Commission for Minorities. Emigration is another factor: like many prosperous Indians, Parsees tend to go to university overseas, and stay there. But most important is the large number of women who marry non-Parsees. Their children are not recognised as Parsees.

The Parsee community, concentrated around Mumbai, is trying to push up the birth rate. New Parsee-only fertility centres are being built. Young Parsees are given lectures about the benefits of early breeding. Girls and boys are brought together at youth camps, in an effort to encourage inter-Parsee marriage.

Many Parsee women, meanwhile, complain that the one change that could stem the decline will never come. They would like the concession that allows men in mixed marriages to bring their children up as Parsees to be extended to them. “My brother’s children are recognised as Parsees; mine are not,” says Shireen Vakil-Miller who, like her brother, married “outside”. The effect on the Parsee population of her hometown, Delhi, is dramatic. When she arrived in 1991, there were thought to be 800 Parsees in the capital. Today, that number has fallen by half.