Indian government scheme to arrest declining Parsi numbers

“Isn’t it time you broke up with your mom?” goes the tagline on an ad featuring a man with his aged mother. Another says, “Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight’’. A third, featuring a woman in a ballerina pose, asks: “Who will be snooty about being superior if you don’t have kids?”

The target of this campaign is the Indian Parsi community, whose population is flatlining but it doesn’t seem to do much about it. The media blitz is expected to shake the Parsis out of procreative somnolence. The last census data makes a compelling case for such an intervention – from 114,000 Parsis in 1941, their headcount dropped to 69,000 in 2001, a fall of 39% on an already-small base.

Provocative and cheeky, these ads, all of them published in Parsi publications, are part of the Indian government’s Jiyo Parsi programme, an attempt to shore up the shrinking numbers. The idea was born when, after seven years of research in collaboration with leading Indian institutes, the National Commission of Minorities identified late or no marriage, decline in fertility, and marriage outside the community as the main drivers behind this dwindling demographic. One out of every five men, and one out of 10 women over 50 are unmarried.

“The community has become, sad to say, demographically abnormal, and Jiyo Parsi is trying to address that”, says Dr Shernaz Cama, honorary director of the UNESCO-funded Parzor Project, which is implementing the scheme.

“Parsis have a Total Fertility Rate of 0.88, while a community needs a TFR of 2.1 to survive. Only one in nine families have a child below the age of 10’’. (TFR is the average number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years and bear children according to age-specific fertility rates)

The five-year-programme is backed by a Rs. 10 crore government grant, and has a two-pronged strategy – advocacy and medical assistance.

The first includes promoting early marriage and multiple children. Under the second, free fertility treatments are offered to couples whose annual income is below Rs 10 lakhs. The campaign has found eager takers, with over 20 couples availing of treatments like In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF)and Intra-Uterine Insemination (IUI) over the last year.

Equally, the ad campaign has angered many Parsis, who find the ads regressive and sexist. Parizad Mehta, a Mumbai-based bank employee, who has two daughters, says the campaign places the entire onus of procreation on women.

“I welcome the initiative because something needs to be done about our numbers. But why should women carry the burden? At 22-23 years, girls are still finding themselves. How can you expect them to have the maturity to find the right partner? They still have their dreams and ambitions. Why should they have to set those aside because the community needs numbers?”

“They are putting out the message that a women’s life is not complete without marriage and motherhood, and that is appalling”, adds Simin Merchant, a doctoral student from the University of Oxford, whose research is focused on the Parsis of colonial India.

“The message it is sending out about women and couples who marry late – words like `you don’t want parents who look like grandparents’ – breed paranoia. Parsis are known for pioneering ideals of progressiveness and modernity, and this campaign is anything but’’.

Those behind the program say rapid decline is a hard fact and it is time to get aggressive about addressing it. “The fact is that there is a thing called biology and the world over there is growing realization of the need to impart a more traditional feminism”, says Dr Cama.

“It’s a fact that at 25, women have biologically aged – your eggs are not in the condition they were at 22. There is a need to get back a healthy work-life balance. What is the harm in a girl getting married and later continuing her career? Learn from the mistakes we have made in the past’’.

The campaign aside, many within the community are questioning the very approach of the programme as it discriminates against Parsi women with non-Parsi spouses. For example, they cannot avail of the medical benefits offered by the community, while Parsi men who have married outside the faith can.

“How can the purpose of stemming the decline be achieved when Parsi women who have married outside the community – and their children – are not considered Parsi (whereas the same measure is not applied to Parsi men)”, questions Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana, a monthly community newsmagazine and a respected liberal voice. “If women are to be a part of any campaign to benefit the community, how can we treat them as second-class citizens? Why are you denying them the right to marry who they want? Parsis were pioneers of women’s education and industry, and today we have regressed.”

Even conservatives like Mehta agree that this is discriminatory. “On the one hand you say men and women are equal. And then you say that women cannot choose their partners and be accepted within the community’’.

Patel goes on to add, ”All genetic studies show that Parsi migration was male-dominated. The mitochondrial (maternal line) DNA carried in Parsi women here in India is different from that found among those in Iran. Clearly there is a large mixture of Gujarati genes, so its not as if the racial purity this program is trying to hold on to still exists. It’s morally and ethically wrong to ban women’’.

Dr Cama defends the decision saying that she is bound by the parameters set under the government’s Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, which is patriarchal and do not grant rights to children born of a union between a Parsi woman and a non-Parsi man.

“Why don’t Parsi women take up the issue?” she asks. “It is not for Jiyo Parsi to do so. The fact is that our surveys have shown that none of the girls born to a Parsi mother and non-Parsi father who had the Navjote (formal induction into Zoroastrianism), married a Parsi. That threatens Zoroastrian culture’’.

Merchant argues the program would be better off adopting a more inclusive approach; the current one according to her smacks of ‘xenophobia’. She says it is time the community accepts that the demographic decline is terminal, and points to various studies that establish this.

“What they are trying to create is the pure Parsi, which will no longer exist”, says Merchant. “You cannot have programs in this day and age to breed race. It is fundamentally wrong. It is also isolates those from the community who have married outside. All it needed was a gesture to welcome thousands of children born of Parsi & non-Parsi unions to add to the community. There are thousands of ways to make Parsis jiyo and this is not one of them

This article was published in the Express Tribune here

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