Insights Into Real Challenges Faced By Our Community Today

Recently, community stalwart, visionary and philanthropist, Dinshaw Tamboly – Chairman of WZO Trusts, gave an insightful and enlightening overview about the current situation and challenges faced by the Parsi community, on the occasion commemorating the 13th anniversary celebrations of the Zoroastrian House of the Parsi Zoroastrian Association of South East Asia, Singapore (PZAS). In his speech, he touched upon a number of pertinent aspects and crucial issues that our community in India has been experiencing. Parsi Times shares relevant excerpts of the same…

Parsis have a proud heritage – we bask in the glory of our great ancestors… Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Dr. Dadabhoy Naoroji, Sir Pherozesha Mehta, Jamsetjee Tata, Homi Bhabha, Field Marshal Sam Manecksha and so many more. We are a community with a brilliant past, a reasonable present, and a future that is rather uncertain.

Two main challenges the community faces are:

 (I) Rapid decline in the Parsi population, resulting in increasing dependency, thus adversely impacting economic situation of families.


(II) Dwindling number of youth willing to take up Priesthood as a profession.

A survey conducted by Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2009, on ‘Socio-Economic and Educational Status of the Parsee Community in India (With Specific Reference to the Economically Weaker Sections)’, shows that the rapid demographic decline (fertility rate perceived to be around 0.8 children per family) will result in increasing economic vulnerability and eventually, its extinction.

There are other facts which emerge from this report… Due to housing provided at nominal rents by some Parsi institutions, poor Parsees may not be visible on the streets or living in slums, but there exists a small fraction of economically disadvantaged individuals and families living even below the poverty line (BPL) as per the official definition of poverty. The TISS report also shares that 70% of Parsis dependent on doles also live BPL.

Some of the leading issues in the report include:

Extremely Low Work Participation Rate (WPR): The growing dependency ratio resulting of a skewed demographic profile, (almost a third of the population being over 60 years and rendered unemployable), has restricted the proportion of economically active population in the community.

Marital Stats: Nearly 20% of community members in the age group of 41 and above, and over 25% in the age group of 31 to 40, are unmarried.

 Low Fertility: Nearly 23% of married women do not have any children and many of these have only one child.

 Age Gap: The average gap between young and old family members is abnormally high – for one single child, there are four seniors. Health status of the aged remains an issue – 1 in 8 families reports cases of some form of disability.

 Female Headed Households: One of the most vulnerable groups, female-headed households comprise 33% of the community, of which over 50% are widows and over 25% are unmarried. 45% belong to single member households and an equal percentage have no earning member and hence, no regular income.

 Education: Lack of educational and vocational training impacts employability and earning potential. Despite high literacy rates, very few pursue higher education – while a majority possess secondary school certification, only 16.67% have a graduation degree or above. Very few have vocational training, resulting in lack of preparedness for the job market, compelling them to rely on financial and other kinds of support”.

There are other concerns also from the community’s perspective, as per TISS Survey. 67% of households facing hardships in meeting basic needs is due to none or single earning member in the family, casual nature of employment and health problems in the family. Also, not all poor Parsee families have an access to relief – many do not apply because it hurts their dignity, making them reluctant to claim benefits or services. Also, doles are very nominal, compelling many to approach multiple institutions, thus multiplying their effort and humiliation.

The community seems trapped in a ‘Dependency Culture’ due to availability of support. This affects the incentive to work and when this behaviour is prolonged, poverty becomes persistent. Many individuals are not catered to by existing Parsi Punchayets, Anjumans or Trusts which practice selective exclusion while administering relief, addressing concerns only of those who strictly follow the religious prescriptions regarding marriage and family. Additionally, there’s inadequate effort to pool the community’s resources for a more scientific approach, even as charitable activities are mostly disorganised and effective networking is missing.

Demographic Dilemma:

The numbers augur an impending downfall. The first census, in 1901, indicated the presence of 94,910 Parsis, followed by an upswing in subsequent censuses (1941) with the highest recorded number of 1,14,890 Parsis. But the census in 2001 showed a major decline with to 69,601 Parsis and the last census of 2011, showed the numbers had shrunk to just 57,264. No census was held in 2021 due to Covid. The next one is scheduled for 2026.

This decadal drop of 18% probably means that our numbers in 2101 would be reduced to just 9,599!

Our community records around 300 to 350 births a year but with around 750 deaths annually, we are probably losing about 400 heads yearly. Add to this the loss on account of migration to other countries, which further aggravates the issue of our diminishing numbers.

To assist in raising our numbers, the GoI extended support through the Jiyo Parsi program, by providing financial support for pregnancy related treatment conducted by PARZOR. Over 400 babies were born through the aegis of Jiyo Parsi, as of September 2022. Unfortunately, the government has since then, chosen to run the programme directly. Any numbers added since then, are not known.

Whilst our rapid demographic decline, unless addressed, will in the long term eventually result in our extinction, the short-term serious ramifications are of increasing economic vulnerability. With deaths exceeding births, elders in the community are far more than our youth. The fallout of the skewed demographic profile has restricted the proportion of economically active population in the community. This has resulted in 33% of our community being over the age of 60, rendering themselves unemployable.

It is essential that a concerted effort needs to be made of formulating incentive-based schemes that would motivate and encourage youth to seriously consider having children that would at the very least sustain our numbers at existing levels.

If the community cannot read the writing on the wall and seriously consider taking corrective measures through its collective leadership, the future or rather the lack of is a foregone conclusion.

Priesthood Poser

A serious issue plaguing the community is the growing number of Athornan boys not embracing Mobedi as a full-time profession. We are fortunate to have 8 Atashbehrams, 50 Agyaries / Dadgah’s in Mumbai and 98 in other parts of India, making available a total of 156 places of worship (Ref. All India Directory of Parsi Institutions). It is estimated that Mobeds who tend to our Atashbehrams and those capable of performing higher inner liturgical ceremonies such as Ijasne, Vendidad, Nirangdin etc., are just around 50 in numbers. Our falling numbers have resulted in far lower footfalls of devotees at these 156 institutions. But the greater issue is the unwillingness of boys born in priestly families to take up priesthood or Mobedi as a calling or profession.

This situation has arisen due to the community laity, over many decades, not having given a thought for the wellbeing of Mobeds. With young full time Mobeds earning just around Rs.20,000 to Rs.25,000 per month, can one blame young boys from Mobed families for choosing to move on to greener, corporate pastures? The Dadar Athornan Institute currently trains only 15 boys from Athornan families as Mobeds, but of these, how many will actually take up Mobedi as a profession remains to be seen. The Institute unfortunately does not have a single young Athornan boy in its campus and been defunct for over two decades.

A faint silver lining is the establishment of the ‘Empowering Mobeds Trust’, a programme that endeavours to empower our Mobeds to support Behdins through their distress times, like sickness, exam anxiety and bereavement. In the past few years of the programme’s existence, many veteran priests, newcomers as well as Dadar Athornan students have been trained by psychiatrists and psychologists to offer emotional support, along with spiritual succour. But, till such time young Athornans do not consider taking up Mobedi, the future remains dismal, also affecting our places of worship.

Till such time the community chooses to sit up to recognize the gravity of the issue and take corrective action, the time is not very far off when we should not be surprised to experience the very serious situation of there being no Mobeds to serve our religious institutions, the eventual end result of which can only be No Parsis, and by extension, No Community.

Parsi Times catches up with Dinshaw Tamboly…

PT: As regards the lack of youth willing to take up priesthood, what is your take on the Behdin Pasban program, which has met with some opposition recently?

Dinshaw Tamboly: I believe it to be a very useful program. With the decline in the number of Athornan children taking to Mobedi, and some Agiyaries reduced to the status of Dadgahs and many others facing similar prospects, the Behdin Pasbans are fulfilling an important need of sustaining the spiritual needs of the community. They will play an even greater role in the future. There’s never any dearth of opposition and criticism to initiatives taken. The Behdin Pasban program should turn a deaf ear to irrational opposition and continue their path breaking efforts.

PT: What about the youth’s issues related to education and dependency on community Trusts / Charity?

Dinshaw Tamboly: Our youth are second to none, but they face severe constraints in their academic pursuits. Though India has excellent academic curriculum, getting admission into a good college is extremely stressful, despite scoring very high percentage of marks. This is due to the government’s Reservation Policies which are not based on merit. Since our community students are not covered by these policies, admission boils down to paying exorbitant fees which are unaffordable and hence assistance is sought from various Trusts or via bank loans. Often, academically inclined students pursue higher education overseas mainly because they are unable to procure admission on merit in Indian Universities. Either ways, the funds required are beyond the reach of many middle-class and even upper middle-class families.

It has been the experience of Trusts extending support towards higher education, that a candidate has to arrange amounts ranging upwards of Rs. 50,00,000/-, for the duration of the course. The inability to raise such substantial amounts results in students abandoning their education and seeking employment, which too is not a cake walk considering the high degree of competition in landing secure jobs. Our youth need to be encouraged and motivated in the pursuit of education, as also supported in extra-curricular activities, which WZO Trusts have been practicing.

PT: A disturbing trend is an increasing number of seniors (mainly singles) are being left to fend on their own or worse, abandoned by their families…

Dinshaw Tamboly: It is not just disease that affects old age, there are various other issues that contribute to the problems faced by seniors. One main issue is negligence from the younger generation. Old people need supervision – the younger generation’s inability to understand their needs and concerns alienates them further, to eventually get regarded as a burden.

A large number of elderly Parsis reside in charity Trust flats, which are very small. In many instances, three generations or sometimes even four generations reside in extreme congestion in these minuscule flats. Many seniors are subject to abuse from family members over property disputes, some are even forced to sell their belongings and spend their twilight days in penury. They are too scared to express themselves for fear of being humiliated by their loved ones.

Other issues encountered by the elderly include dealing with loneliness, lack of companionship and inadequate medical care. Elders suffering from mental challenges undergo serious personality changes calling for attention. Left unattended, most succumb to feelings of dejection, purposelessness and depression. Unfortunately, many families are unable to provide adequate care for senior family members due to work priorities.

Elders desire a life with good health, dignity, economic independence and finally, a peaceful death. They long for care, love and affection. Understanding their needs and concerns and lending emotional support keeps them in good spirits, adding to their wellbeing and good health. These are the objectives we endeavor to achieve at the WZO Trust Funds Senior Citizens Centre at Navsari.

PT: What about the steady increase in the number of inter-community marriages in the community?

Dinshaw Tamboly: While one would be most happy for marriages to take place within our community, we will simply have to learn and accept this reality of our times – that inter-community marriages have increased manifold and will continue to do so. At school, college or at the workplace, there are generally a very small fraction from within our community interacting with those from other communities, resulting in friendships being forged – the natural consequence of which is inter-community unions. It is simply the truth of our times and how we handle this truth will set the trajectory of our community’s future.

PT: WZO Trusts has been instrumental in making a difference to community members in need, across various causes. What is the future course of action or area of focus now?

Dinshaw Tamboly:

Our focus has always been community welfare, efforts based on creating support systems for community members in need of diverse requirements, such as rehabilitating financially challenged individuals through self-employment, financial support towards higher education, medical relief and hospitalisation, relief from poverty for economically challenged elderly, infirm, Mobeds, laity etc., encouraging and facilitating our youth in their creative and organisational activities, and so on.

We are very grateful to our legion of donors worldwide, for extending support to diverse community related activities. I would like to reiterate the enormous support we have been receiving continuously over decades for our multifarious welfare activities, from institutions such as Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hong Kong, Canton & Macao, Bai Maneckbai P B Jeejeebhoy Deed of Settlement Funds, Mumbai, FEZANA, USA, WZO USA Region, WZO London, Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, and individuals like Pervin and Jal Shroff as also Noshir Pavri from Hong Kong, Zenobia and Kersi Aspar from Singapore, and others.

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