Counting Parsis

The community not only doesn't allow conversions, but expels a woman who marries out. This tradition does not bode well for a community that has only around 1075 girls under four years of age.   The Parsi community, the most highly educated demographic in India, currently comprises 0.0069 percent of the country's population – less than 70,000 in 2001 – and is shrinking quickly. The community's negative growth rate is setting off alarm bells about its possible extinction. If census projections are anything to go by, the Parsis – descendents from Persian exiles who landed in Sanjan, Gujarat, during the 8th century – might not last until the end of this century. "At the rate we're declining, we should be extinct in 100 years," says Ava Khuller, head of the demographics department at the Parzor Foundation, a UNESCO-funded organisation dedicated to the preservation of Parsi culture.

The Parsi community's last positive population growth rate was recorded during 1931-41. While census figures for 1881 gave a count of 85,400 Parsis in India, the 1941 census reported nearly 114,900. Since then, the population has decreased by about 10 percent per decade, compared to 21 percent growth for India as a whole. By 2001, the national census recorded only 69,600 Parsis. While India's under-six age group makes up about 15 percent of the country's population, only 4.7 percent of the Parsi community falls into this category. More than 30 percent of Parsis are over 60 years old, compared to just seven percent for the country as a whole. The Parsi birth rate is as low as six per 1000 per annum, while the death rate is as high as 18 per 1000. Given this imbalance, says Ava Khuller, "We are losing about 6900 Parsis every year."  

Other statistics show a community that would appear to be doing extremely well. Both literacy rates – 98 percent – and the sex ratio – 1050 girls for every 1000 boys – are among the highest in India. Given the decline in numbers, such figures have perplexed demographers, sociologists and doctors.

 No conversions
The Parsi population count is no doubt affected by a tradition that does not allow for mixed marriages. Of late, there has been abandonment of that tradition. A 1978 study of Delhi's Parsi community found that 33 percent of Parsi marriages were to non-Parsis, and that that number had doubled to 66 percent just a decade later. Despite this trend, Ava Khuller points out, "Our community not only doesn't allow conversions, but expels a woman who marries out." This tradition does not bode well for a community that has only around 1075 girls under four years of age.  

If a Parsi woman does marry within the religion, this only increases what is already a widespread problem in the community – inbreeding. Cousin marriages are allowed, confirms Khuller, and refers to a practice that dates back to when the Parsis first left Persia. "They brought their womenfolk, and inbreeding continued in India with the same religious zeal that made them leave their motherland – to protect their religion," wrote pathologist Dr P K Antia in a paper entitled "Parsis and Blood Diseases".  

The consequences of centuries of inbreeding are taking a harsh toll on Parsi children. If practiced repeatedly, inbreeding leads to a reduction in genetic diversity and impacts the health of offspring. An inbred individual is likely to possess several physical and health-related problems, including reduced fertility. A newly discovered, untreatable defect known as G6PD (Glucose 6-hosphate dehydrogenase) defi-ciency has also become prominent within the Parsi community, causing blood-related problems such as anaemia. Other ailments conspiring against Parsi girls and women include breast cancer and diseases of the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes, each of which (as well as the treatment of which, in the case of breast cancer) can directly impact fertility.  

On top of all of this, a Parsi woman is likely to marry too late to have children, if she marries at all. A study conducted by the Parzor Foundation revealed that, since 1980, roughly 25 percent of women aged 40-49 were unmarried. Taken together, Ava Khuller notes, "In order to merely meet the replacement ratio, every Parsi woman who does reproduce must have at least three to five children each, or the community will still have a negative growth rate." Such a solution, according to fertility specialist Dr Faram Irani, would require an interesting inversion on modern trends: marrying young and having more babies. From issues of health to fertility, inbreeding and social mores, it seems that the Parsis of India are bound to shrink until a community, sadly, disappears.

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