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Demographic Transition or Demographic Trepidation? The Case of Parsis in India

The Parsi community in India is declining in absolute numbers since 1941. To what extent was this decline affected by enumeration, fertility decline or emigration? This article examines the relative importance of these factors in the light of the 2001 Census and demonstrates that the unprecedentedly low fertility among the Parsis is the prime contributor in its declining population size.


Demographic Transition or Demographic Trepidation? The Case of Parsis in India

Sayeed Unisa, R B Bhagat, T K Roy, R B Upadhyay

The Parsi community in India is declining in absolute numbers since 1941. To what extent was this decline affected by enumeration, fertility decline or emigration? This article examines the relative importance of these factors in the light of the 2001 Census and demonstrates that the unprecedentedly low fertility among the Parsis is the prime contributor in its declining population size.

This is a revised version of an article presented at a seminar organised by the National Commission on Minorities on December 4, 2004 at Mumbai. We would like to thank Ashish Bose, P N Mari Bhat and P M Kulkarni for their comments on an earlier draft.

The authors are at International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.


he Parsi community in India is perhaps the only community outside Europe to have experienced dramatic population and fertility decline [Coale 1973; Coale and Watkin 1986]. This indicates that a country that is experiencing high population growth can also have communities that have different kinds of demographic pattern [Axelrod 1990; Lorimer 1954]. This is due to the fact that wide cultural differences exist among different communities within a national territory [Kulke 1974].

Parsis are a small but prosperous religious community whose a population peaked at about 1,14,000 in 1941. The recent census enumerated it to be about 69,000 in 2001. The unprecedented fall has drawn the attention of researchers, policymakers, and the Parsis themselves. The main objective of this paper is to examine the trend of fertility, mortality and emigration among the Parsi population and to project its population estimate by 2050. For this purpose data are taken from different censuses, and surveys conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai [Karkal 1982] and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai [Singh and Gowri 2000].

Parsis are followers of the monotheistic form of religion known as Zoroastrianism founded 2,500 years ago in Iran (Persia). They migrated to India from their motherland after the Arab victory over the last ruler of the Sassanid dynasty around 640 AD. They first landed around 00 miles north of Bombay, at a place called Navasari in Gujarat from where they moved to other cities in India. With the rise to political power of the European trading companies in India by the 19th century they acquired prominent positions in the economic, educational and political life of the country. By the end of the 19th century, 85 per cent of the Parsi community was urbanised, and only 15 per cent lived in the villages [Desai 1968; Bose and Kullar 1978].

In India, Parsis maintained some sort of social isolation by practising endogamy and not accepting any new converts to their faith [Visaria 1974a; Axelrod 1980]. However, they have selectively adapted themselves to the social milieu of Gujarat by accepting the language and the dress of the region [Visaria 1974a].

Size, Growth and Age-Structure

Table 1 (p 62) shows the size of the Parsi population from 1901 to 2001. It may be noticed that during 1901 to 1941 there was a slow but steady increase in population. Although there were several famines and epidemics during this period, Parsis were least affected by these natural calamities as most of them lived in urban areas [Visaria 1974a]. After 1941, their population declined. The figures

Economic & Political Weekly january 5, 2008


of the 1951 Census were affected by the Partition of the country due to exclusion of Parsis who remained in the city of Karachi or other parts of Pakistan (including the present-day Bangladesh). But even after considering their population in Pakistan, in the

Table 1: Size of Parsi Population, Indian subcontinent as a whole,
1901-2001, India the growth of Parsi population
Year Persons Male Female 1901 94,140* -- during 1941-51 was not more than
1911 1,00,096* 51,123 48,973 2 per cent [Visaria 1974a]. This
1921 10,17,780* 52,355 49,423 1931 1,09,329* 56,366 52,963 1941 1,14,890* 58,248 56,642 shows that the effect of fertility decline on the growth of the Parsi
1951 1,11,791 56,137 55,654 population started much before
1961 1,00,772 49,425 51,347 1971 91,266 44,803 46,463 1981 71,630 35,328 36,302 the fertility decline experienced by the average Indian population
(86,013)** in the mid-1970s.
1991 76,382 37,736 38,646 It may be seen from Table 2
(77,353)** 2001 69,601 33,949 35,652 that during 1971-81, a drastic de
* Undivided India. ** Estimated based on reverse survival method cline in population is noticed fol
using the age-group 0-9 of 2001 Census. lowed by an increase during the
Table 2: Decadal Growth Rate of decade 1981-91 and a decline
Population in India and among Parsis again during 1991-2001.
Decade All India Parsis 1951-1961 20.40 -9.86 1961-1971 24.80 -9.43 The age structure of Parsis since the early 20th century had
1971-1981 24.66 -21.52 (-5.75) undergone a significant change,
1981-1991 23.86 6.63 (-10.07) 1991-2001 21.34 -8.88 (-10.02) Figures in parentheses are estimated growth but it was similar to that of England and Wales [Chandra Sekar
rates. 1948]. In 40 years’ time (from

1961 to 2001), the percentage of population in the age group 65 and above got doubled. As a result, the percentage of those aged

be denied that the non-availability of data on migration from direct sources precludes an exact assessment of the contribution of emigration to the decline of the Parsi population in India.

A question that is always raised is “does the census count the Parsi population correctly?” or “to what extent is the Parsi population affected by under enumeration or misclassification?” So far as under enumeration is concerned it may not be important under the assumption that it is likely to affect equally the successive censuses as well. However, we have reason to believe that more recent censuses have been able to cover the Parsi population more accurately than earlier censuses because of the attention paid by Parsi community to the act of census taking. Prominent Parsis, the Parsi panchayat,1 and the registrar-general of India appealed to all Parsis through announcements in daily newspapers, and in Parsi publications like Parzor2 and Parsiana3 to extend full cooperation to the census operation during the 2001 Census.4 Enumerators were also trained to record different names of Parsi community through which they identify themselves [Banthia 2003]. The different names used by the Parsi community for themselves are given in Appendix A, p 65).

Due to their small size, Parsis formed a part of “other religious category” in census tabulations. Misclassification of Parsis into some other religious category may be another aspect affecting the census enumeration. We have tried to estimate the proportion of Parsis to the population enumerated in “other religious category” and presented it in Figure 5 (p 63) for the censuses 1961 to 2001. The proportion of Parsis in other religious groups continued to decrease until 1981 Census but experienced a rise in the

65 years and above among Parsis (24.2 Figure 1: Age Pyramid, Parsis, 2001 (percentage) 1991 Census. Thus misclassification

per cent) was found higher than several developed countries like Sweden 80+


(17.4 per cent), Spain (16.5 per cent)

70-74 and Japan (16.1 per cent) around 2001 65-69


[UN 2002]. Further, the proportion of


trar General of India 1984]. In the case of the 1991 Census these subcategories were not reported in other religious groups, but most likely included under “Zoroastrian” category [Registrar General of India 1995]. Thus, we have reason to believe that census figures of 1991 and 2001 are least affected by

4.0 2.0 0.0 2.0 4.0

Male Female may have affected census enumeration prior to the census of 1991.

A close examination of Parsi data from the 1981 Census in other religious communities reveals that Parsis

the child population (12.3 per cent be

low age 15 in 2001) is also very low. By

the year 2001 one in every eight Parsis


were also enumerated under the reli


Age Group



every fourth Parsi was 65 years and


above. The present age structure of 10-14 5-9

the Parsi population as shown in Fig


ure 1 (also see Figure 2 for all-India) is not possible without a very low fertility level. On the other hand, a high proportion of aged population shows the possibility of high death rate depleting the population if it is not replaced by a high birth rate.

gious categories of “Gujarati”, “Irani”

was a child under 15 years, whereas


and “Persian”, and the total of these



sub-categories was up to 2874 [Regis-

Figure 2: Age Pyramid, India, 2001 (percentage) Female Male 80+ 75-79 70-74 65-69 60-64 55-59 50-54 45-49 40-44 35-39 30-34 25-29 20-24 15-19 10-14 5-9 0-4 Age Group

On the other hand, to what extent are the census figures affected by under enumeration and higher emigration? The likelihood of emigration depleting Parsi population cannot be ruled out. Usually, emigration takes place from the age groups 20-49 and if there is heavy emigration it is likely to affect the age distribution of the population. When we examine the age distribution of population aged 15-45 years we find no significant distortions in the age pattern over a period of time from 1961 to 2001 (see Figures 3 and 4, p 63). Thus, migration does not appear to be a reason for the

decline in population in the recent past. Nevertheless, it cannot 8.0 6.0 4.0 2.0 0.0 2.0 4.0 6.0 8.0

62 January 5, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


misclassification of Parsi population. Further as special attention dress; however, they embraced western behaviour and values in had been given to the 2001 Census by the census officials involv-other domains. Their modernised values prompt them to marry

ing the Parsi panchayat and influential persons within the community, we believe that the 2001 Census figure on Parsi population is closer to reality. Hence, we have tried to reverse survive the 2001 Parsi population to estimate the population in earlier censuses up to 1981. We find that our estimate for 1991 is close to the census enumeration, but there is a large underenumeration in the 1981 Census (i e, 14,383). Even the estimated population size of the Parsi population of 86,013 in 1981 is lower than the enumerated population of 91,266 in 1971. Thus, only the magnitude of the decline was different and the dwindling population size of Parsis

since 1941 continues to be corroborated. In the last two decades, i e, 1981-91 and 1991-2001, their population has declined by 10 per cent in each decade (Table 2).

Non-Marriage and Late Marriage

The incidence of non-marriage is much higher among Parsis as compared to the other communities [Karkal 1982; Billimona 1991; Singh and Gowri 2000]. A survey in Mumbai shows that a signifi-

Figure 3: Age Distribution, Parsi Males (in percentage) 40 30 20 10 0

0-14 15-29 30-44 45-59 60+ Age Groups 1961 2001 1981 1971
Figure 4: Age Distribution, Parsi Females (in percentage)

40 30 20 10 0

0-14 15-29 30-44 45-59 60+ Age Groups 1971 1961 1981 2001

Figure 5: Proportion of Parsis in Other Religious Groups (in %) 8


Linear (Series 1)

which declined to 134 children per 1000


women in 1999 (Table 4). This gives a


clear indication of the spectacular de

cline in the birth rate among Parsis.

0 1961 1971 1981 1991 2001

Total fertility rate (number of chil-

Census Years

dren born per woman) estimated indi-

Indian population is classified in seven broad religious categories, namely, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Other. Parsis fall in the rectly using child woman ratios during Other Religious category.

1980-82 was 1.12 among Parsis; about by their own choice; on the other hand parental and familial constraints and obligations are still formidable in the community and create a contradiction that is difficult to overcome. In the bargain, many of them remained unmarried. Inter religious marriages are also prevalent among Parsis, but they do not accept new converts to their faith. This has influenced the size of their population [Visaria 1974a; Axelrod 1980].


As birth statistics are not accurately available from direct sources, indirect estimates of fertility based on the child woman ratio (CWR) are derived using census and survey data. The CWR 0-4/15-49 among Parsis was 182 per 1,000 women in 1961,

cant proportion of households was headed by unmarried males four children lower than an average Indian (Table 4). After 20 (9 per cent) and unmarried females (18 per cent) [Karkal 1982]. years in 2000, a further decline was noticed as it dropped to be-

The marital structure of Parsi population shows a deviation from universally observed pattern of marriages in India [Karkal 1975]. The primary reason for non-marriages and late marriages is due to the concern of the young males and females for an acceptable minimum standard of living for family formation [Visaria 1974c]. As such, Parsi women are more concerned about their status and career. They are highly educated and work outside their homes. Marriage seems to be the second priority. Another peculiar feature of the Parsi community is the lack of family or peer pressure to get married at a certain age [Bhavnagri 2005; Gould 1980; Ketyauntt 1982]. It is interesting to note that age at marriage among Parsi women is about 27 years and among men it is about 31 years. One out of five males and one out of 10 females remained single even by age 50 compared to almost universal marriages among the other Indian populations.

It is worth noting that Parsis vigorously retained their religion and distinctive form of

Economic & Political Weekly January 5, 2008

Table 3: Mean Age at Marriage (Years) in India and among Parsis

Year Parsis All India
Male Female Male Female
1961 31.1 26.8 21.3 15.9
1982 30.1 27.1 23.5 18.4
1999 30.6 26.8 24.9 19.7

Mean age at marriage for Parsis refer to Greater Mumbai only and data are taken from 1961 Census, IIPS survey [Karkal 1982] and TISS survey 1999 [Singh and Gowri 2000]. All India figures are estimated based on information taken from 1961 and 1981 Censuses and from NFHS-2.

Table 4: Estimated Total Fertility Rates and Child Women Ratio (0-4/15-49) in India and among Parsis

Year Parsis All India
1961 182 1.51 659
1982 166 1.12 545 5.2
1999 134 0.94 211 3.2

Data for Parsis refer to Greater Mumbai only. Parsi data are from 1961 Census, IIPS survey [Karkal 1982], and TISS survey 1999 [Singh and Gowri 2000]. All India data refer to censuses of 1961, 1981 and 2001 respectively. TFR for Parsis belong to Greater Mumbai only because age and sex structure data was not available to the researchers. The estimation of TFR is based on child woman ratios employing the methos suggested by Rele [Rele 1967]. All India figures for 1982 refer to 1980-82, and 1999 refer to 2000 from SRS.

low one child (0.94). The Parsis who were residing in the state of Maharashtra had the lowest fertility compared to those living in Gujarat and other parts of the country (Table 5, p 64). Since a majority of the Parsi population (nearly 80 per cent) is living in Maharashtra, their lowest fertility has contributed to the overall decline in Parsi population in India.

Further, crude birth rate (CBR) was also estimated using age distribution of 2001 Census data. In order to estimate CBR, the population in age group zero to nine was reverse survived. It was estimated that CBR was 9.4 per 1,000 population during 1986-1991, which declined to

7.8 during 1991-1996, and further down to 6.4 births per 1,000 population in 2000-2001.

Along with late marriage, voluntary and involuntary childlessness is another important factor for the lowest low fertility among the Parsi community. One out of every 10 Parsi women is childless in the age – group 45-49 [Karkal 1982; Singh and Gowri 2000], compared


to one among every 20 women childless for the total Indian pop-population. The life expectancy at birth (e00 ), derived from surulation as per the 2001 Census. The Parsi panchayat is aware of vey data using information on children ever born and surviving, this and is currently running fertility clinics to treat the cases of shows that life expectancy was nearly 70 years during 1972-77

infertility among them.

In a nutshell, the marriage behaviour of the community combined with historical and cultural factors is jointly responsible for a tremendous decline in fertility among Parsis parallel to any European community in the recent past [Cleland and Hobcraft 1985].


Downward trend in mortality among Parsis started prior to 1881. The Parsi death rate was low in comparison to all-India estimate during series of famines and plague epidemics although they could not have totally escaped their effect [Desai 1948; Visaria 1974b]. The death rate among Parsis in Bombay city fluctuated between 12 and 14 up to 1951 and has moved slightly upward since then.

Table 5: Estimated Total Fertility Rate and Child Woman Ratio of Parsi by Major States of Their Concentration, 2001

(5-9/20-49) (1994) (0-4/15-49) (1999)
All Parsis 181 1.23 149 1.0
Parsis in Maharashtra 173 1.17 140 0.91
Parsis in Gujarat 206 1.41 186 1.27
Parsis in rest of India 224 1.53 218 1.5

TFR is estimated using child woman ratio based on Rele’s method [Rele 1967]. It is notable that TFR for Spain is 1.2, Japan is 1.4 and Sweden is 1.6 in 2000.

Table 6: Projected Parsi Population (‘000)

Year Projection-I Projection-II Projection-III
2001 69 69 69
2011 61 61 62
2021 53 54 57
2031 46 47 53
2041 39 40 49
2051 32 34 47

Projection-I-TFR will decline from 1.0 in 2001 to 0.75 in 2051. Projection-II-TFR will remain constant at 1.0 from 2001 to 2051. Projection-III-TFR will increase from 1.0 in 2001 to 1.4 in 2011, 2.1 in 2021 and remain constant at 2.1 afterwards. Expectations of life for all projections are same; for males it will increase from 75 to 83 and for females from 76 to 85 during 2001 to 2051.

and infant mortality rate was between 25 and 29 per 1,000 live births which declined to 12 by the year 1980. Similarly, the life expectancy is estimated to be about 80 years at the close of the 20th century.

The estimates of fertility and life expectancy presented above show that the Parsi community is characterised by a very high death rate (close to 15 per 1,000 population compared to 9 at all-India level around 2000) as well as one of the lowest low fertility in recent decades. The fertility level (TFR 1.2; and CBR 9 per 1,000 population around 2000) is much below the replacement level fertility (TFR 2.1), and ageing of the population is (24 per cent aged 65 plus) very acute. In such a demographic situation deaths are very likely to exceed births and the dwindling of the population is a demographic reality.

Future Scenario

The infant mortality was close to 30 per 1000 live births by

late 1960s, a level that was attained by the US only around Chandra Sekar (1948) projected Parsi population from 1941 to 1962. Visaria (1974b) believes that further reduction in death 2001 based on birth and death rates derived from Parsi registrarate has been nearly exhausted due to fast ageing of Parsi tion data in Bombay city. He assumed that if rates were constant

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over this period, the size of the Parsi population would be 89,218 in 2001. But, the projected figures by Chandra Sekar were found much higher than the actual count reported in 2001 (69,601). This shows a spectacular decline than what was anticipated earlier.

We also made an attempt to project the Parsi population up to 2051 using 2001 Census as base population. The purpose of projection is to show how the Parsi population with different fertility scenarios and constant mortality pattern is likely to change in future. Component projection method is used, and for this input of fertility is TFR, and mortality is life expectancy at birth (e00 ), and the influence of migration is ignored. Three types of projections were made un

from 1.0 in 2001 to 1.4 in 2011, to 2.1 in 2021, and will remain constant at 2.1 afterwards (this scenario is possible only when efforts will be made by the community to increase their fertility and proportion of married women). The life expectancy representing mortality scenario is same in all three projections, i e, for males it will increase from 75 to 83 years and for females from 76 to 85 years during 2001 to 2051. In 2051, projection-I showed a decline of about 53.6 per cent, i e, from 69,000 in 2001 to 39,000 in 2051 (Table 6, p 64). The figures in second scenario (projection-II) revealed comparatively slower decline than that of projection-I. In other words, the pace of decline is observed at the rate of one per cent per year up to 2051. The projected figures under

der different scenarios of fertility. Appendix A: Reported/Recorded Returns in the Column of Parsi Religion in 2001 Census third scenario are still showing a de-
For the first type of projection, it Sr Return Place Sr Return Place cline in spite of the assumption of in
was assumed that TFR would de- No No creasing fertility. However, the pace
cline from 1.0 in 2001 to 0.75 in 1 2 Jarthosti Jorastriyan DNH Madhya Pradesh 11 12 Zaratrashtra Zorostrian Parsi Mumbai Mumbai of decline is reduced from 1 per cent
2051 if current rate of decline in fer 3 Zourastrian Andhra Pradesh 13 Parsi Irani Maharashtra in second scenario to 0.6 per cent per
tility continues. In the second pro 4 Zorostrian Kerala 14 Jorastriyan Maharashtra year in third scenario in the next 50
jection, TFR is considered constant 5 6 Irani Parsi Irani Zorastri Mumbai Mumbai 15 16 Jurashan Nanavat MaharashtraMaharashtra years by 2051. Thus the projected fig
at 1.0 from 2001 to 2051 assuming 7 Jarthrosti Mumbai 17 Zorostrian Irani Maharashtra ures of the Parsi population in this
that there will be no further decline 8 Prasi Mumbai 18 Zoraost Maharashtra study indicate what choices the Parsi
in fertility. In the third projection, 9 10 Jurasil Hindu Parshi Mumbai Maharashtra 19 20 Irastian Irthust Maharashtra Gujarat community has to make in order to

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