Demographic and Health Aspects of the Parsi Community: Action points from Parzor Seminar Mumbai 13th & 14th December 2008

The Parzor Foundation which began at the invitation of UNESCO as the UNESCO Parzor Project 302 IND 4070 has been examining all facets relating to the Parsi Zoroastrian community of India. Initially begun as a project for documentation and research in community culture, during field trips particularly in the interior regions of South Gujarat and the Deccan, community members and organisations requested Parzor to examine the causes of the demographic and socio-cultural decline.


This led to the creation of the Health and Demographic Module supported by the Sir Dorab Tata Trust and the Bombay Parsi Punchayat. Seven studies were conducted across the country by Parzor Foundation.
It is the first time in UNESCO history that a community has been studied in such close detail from the cellular to the clinical level medically and through studies on the Family, the Aged, the Youth so as to create a complete picture of the health of a community. Working closely with TISS, the Census of India, South Gujarat University, the Cancer Research Institute, Tata Memorial Hospital and other national institutions, the researchers have been provided great support from the grass root level upwards by Parsi Anjumans and Punchayats across India. They have conducted research in the smallest villages, at Senior Citizens homes and have been welcomed in most cases by families who have shared intimate details of community life and its issues.
The studies are as given below with short titles:-
1. Family – Prof. Shalini Bharat, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.(Read More)
2. Youth – Dr. Lata Narayan, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.(Read More)
3. Senior Citizens – Professor Siva Raju, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.(Read More)
4. Health problems – Ms. Katy Gandevia – Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.(Read More)
5. Neurological Disease- Dr. Nadir Bharucha – Bombay Hospital, Mumbai.(Read More)
6. Genetic Study- Professor Pankaj Gadhia – South Gujarat University, Surat.(Read More)
7. Cancer Study – Dr. Narendra Joshi – Cancer Research Institute, Mumbai.(Read More)
8. Review of Genetic Studies- Dr. J.V. Undevia – Ex. Cancer Research Institute, Mumbai.(Read More)
• The Parsis show a Swedish pattern of growth, an inverted triangle where the aged number over 30 % of the population whereas only one household in 9 has a child below the age of 10.
• The Government of India, several institutions of national importance and Parsi organisations are willing to work to resolve some of the issues arising from the above situation.
• Mr. Shafi Qureshi, Chairman National Commission for Minorities has stated that
a.The NCM is willing to help remove encroachments in areas across India where the property of the Parsis is being threatened.
b. The government wants to ensure representation in State Commissions.
c.There is an acceptance that college admission can be relaxed for Parsis in cases of Parsi funded institutions.
d.The 15 point programme of the Prime Minister for Minorities must be understood and utilized by the Parsis.
e.The 11the Five Year Plan has special focus on promotion of language, religion, culture and socio-economic growth of Minorities. The government requests all Anjumans to send suggestions to the NCM to streamline action plans for the Parsis.
• The Family Study reflects the problems of the community in miniature. There is need to address a rapid change in the attitudes to family in the community. Family must be restored to a prime position of importance and seen as the pivot around which economic growth, education and progress, community bonding, preservation of culture revolves. The negative approach of looking at family affairs as ‘problems’ should be challenged and corrected. The aged and young children can be offered programmes which mesh into each other, replacing the joint family system which has essentially stopped functioning among metropolitan Parsis. The divisions in leadership and quarrelling about affairs of the community by the traditionalists, the liberals, and the indifferent are creating great angst at a community level. This must be addressed by all Anjumans.
• Women want Trusts to support enterprises for crèches and care for the aged. There is need for organisational training and professional services for such care and management. This may encourage women to have at least two children. Campaigns such as ‘Two children are good for the community BUT Better for You’ needs to be promoted. Infertility treatments need to be advertised and couples supported at an early stage of marriage.
• ‘Marriage is a risky affair’ – such beliefs need to be countered.Aggressive nationwide networking for marriage through Anjumans and Punchayats across India will improve partner search.
• Mental health counselling services not only for the elderly but also for the unmarried and childless needs to be started across India.
• Children must be socialised into the community and particularly kept with the community through programmes at adolescence. The cross sex negative perceptions between youth (boys versus girls) should be negated and understanding fostered.
• Housing impacts marriage decisions in Bombay. It is a negative impact. The Rent Act should not be applicable to housing built for charity. Instead tenants who can pay market price should be willing to do so, those who cannot, should be supported. The normal practice of taking loans for buying a house must be actively promoted in the community. Instead of building more houses Parsi Trusts should provide loans on nominal interest or give interest free loans to the poorer sections. For upwardly mobile youth Trusts can stand surety for loans from national banks and institutions.
• Minority status reservations must be seriously discussed. For national level leadership the community must demand representation in the Rajya Sabha as is given to Anglo Indians.
• Publication of Annual reports and Audit statements of Trust funds and Charities will help restore confidence in the community. Induct non Parsi experts so that international ‘Best practices’ of other communities in similar situations can be used to find solutions in issues of community charities.
• Media must be used to counter Bollywood images of Parsis. Spreading awareness through image building all over India must be followed vigorously even through paid image building.
• Pessimism about the community should be replaced by messages of optimism that creative solutions are always available.
• Community divide was a great concern. To avoid fragmentation, youth suggested there should be more interactive meetings, there should be more children in each family and Parsis should marry early to facilitate this. 50 % believed that a child with either a Parsi father or mother should be permitted into the community after a Navjote.
• Youth wanted more young people in decision making bodies at local and national level.
• There should be no gender bias in Parsi law as related to marriage and children.
• There is need for reform about laws of adoption.
• With 31% over the age of 60, social services for the Parsis have to be oriented to serving this expanding age group. The strategy should shift from spending money on brick and mortar to providing direct service for senior citizens.
• Home based services, professionally organized with volunteer participation of senior citizens are needed.
• Cost of these services should be based on payment with subsidies for those unable to pay. Programmes of geriatric care exist through VIMHANS (Vidhyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Health and Neurosciences). The Parsis should use such professional institutions for their planning. Recruitment and short training programmes can be organised by such institutes for the Parsis.
• Care for ageing parents is a great concern for Parsis most of whom, single or married, are working. They are willing to pay for good home care. In the home, constant attention is not always possible from working children. Trained house help, visiting nurses and medical assistance are required. Trusted members of the community would be more acceptable than others.
• Portable equipment for blood tests, eye check ups hearing aids, dentures are needed for those doctors willing to provide for the Parsi elderly.
• Home based tax and investment services through professionals are needed.
• Special meals on wheels programme to be supported by community.
• Parsi colonies can prevent boredom and depression by using the healthy ‘young elders’ to provide child care, hobby facilities, volunteers for visiting sick or home bound elders. Such centres can also provide retirement planning and re employment opportunities. Inter generational activity will keep the community mentally healthier and more united.
• The poor elderly need special support and massive subsidy from the community to live in dignity, currently they suffer great poverty.
• The Calcutta model of a trained, paid social worker must be drawn upon by the community.
Such community care will help prevent cases of people who do not marry because they feel they have to look after elderly parents. Marriage is not an option for several today, because of the strain of care of the elderly.
• Institutional care for the very old or completely alone elderly should be located near the community preferably in areas where they lived earlier. Isolation caused by age must not be increased by physical distance.
• Building homes for the aged in Parsi colonies would be one method. Such homes must be able to provide guest rooms for families who should be encouraged to visit parents/ elder relatives/ friends.
• Such facilities should be encouraged to make rooms for a couple or unmarried offspring with an elder parent. There should not be rigid rules but need based decisions on admission.
• Elders should be encouraged to bring their own furniture etc. to such homes.
The rule that sick elderly cannot stay at senior citizens homes has caused anxiety. This gives no reassurance of security and should be reviewed. Nursing care should be provided as part of institutional benefits. Homes should have special contracts with hospitals and emergency services.
• Families should be encouraged to take institutionalised elders to their family homes for festivals and birthdays. Institutionalising of the elders should not become imprisonment.
• Institutions should have a library and other infrastructure facilities. The psychological environment is important and the elders should be involved in the management of their facilities.
• For both sections of elders, those at home and those in care insurance must be an essential. Parsi Anjumans can approach the national insurance companies for special consideration.
• Helpage India is willing to associate with Parzor to provide national level programmes for Parsi elderly.
• Under the National Policy on Old Age several government programmes are available the care and security of the aged and for their protection in case of problems within the family. This information should be disseminated at all Anjuman levels.
• This Bombay based study has found four major illnesses in the community.
a. CVD (Cardio Vascular Diseases)
b. Cancer – specially breast
c. Diabetes
d. Stress
• During the seminar the medical module addressed some of these issues.
• Infertility due to high prevalence of polycystic ovaries syndrome was discussed. Preventive and curative measures for this are available.
• Lifestyle changes, regular medical check up, prevention of consanguineous marriages will help prevent some health problems from continuing into the next generation.
• Detailed studies on the four major illnesses must be initiated across the community with community participation.
• Case studies of people with rare illness/ syndromes to be documented.
• These technical studies were pilot studies which have shown the way for detailed analysis and large national level studies with inputs from several institutions in the future.
• As seen so far there is no apparent genetic factor which has brought down the rate of Parsi population in India.
• Since G6PD deficiency and some allergies are prevalent screening should be done by tests before marriage of both partners.
• PSA tests for males over 50 are advisable due to high rates of prostrate cancer in Parsis.
• Parsis are the only group seen among various world populations who are phylogentically separated from their geographic cluster. Further studies and analyses will be of great interest to all medical researchers in elucidating the genetic evolution of the Parsis.
• The study of the group of genes known as HLA or Human Leukocyte Antigen genes allows for fine tuning of immunity response to disease causing bacteria and viruses. In a given population, identified by geo-ethnic features specific genes may predominate. Hence the study of these polymorphic genes can provide clues for particular health disorders and help in the development of vaccines. Another family of genes i.e. KIR genes or Killer Immunoglobulin – like Receptor genes are also necessary to study for their immune responses against microbes. Because of the distinct HLA genotype of the Parsis who are more closely related to Parsis in Karachi, Pakistan than their geographical Indian neighbours it would be of interest to study HLA- KIR genotype combinations of the Parsis.
• Population group studies of the Parsis and Irani Zarthusthis may lead to significant findings for medical research.
• A data bank and centre either in a hospital or research institution, dedicated to research on Parsi health with a documentation centre should be created as a resource and referral for researchers in India and abroad.