The Indian government, though faced with a rapidly expanding population, is trying to encourage one community to have more children.
Author: Atish Patel | Source: Wall Street Journal
The Parsi community, or Zoroastrians as they are known outside India, has been dwindling to such an extent that the government said it will spend $1.6 million over the next four years in an attempt to reverse the decline.
Minority Affairs Minister K. Rahman Khan said the government will offer free or highly subsidized fertility treatment for Parsi couples who want to have a child. Young Parsis will also be offered counseling sessions to encourage them to marry early.
“This is a small step to pay our debt to the Parsi community for their contribution to the country. We cannot afford to lose this community,” The Times of India quoted Mr. Khan as saying at the launch of the program in New Delhi.
The initiative is named “Jiyo Parsi,” which means “Live Parsi.”
“We will have interactive sessions, we will give out literature explaining why it is important to conceive at the right age and have children at the right age,” said Shernaz Cama, director of the Parzor Foundation, a community group.
Parsis came to India from Persia more than 1,000 years ago. Census data show the population shrank from around 115,000 in 1941 to just over 69,000 in 2001, the latest available figures. The Parzor Foundation expects the population to fall to 36,000 by 2050.
The drop has been blamed on Parsi men and women choosing to focus on their careers and delaying marriage and starting a family much later in life, when their fertility declines.
Some also choose not to marry at all. One out of every five Parsi men and one out of every 10 women is unmarried by the age of 50, the Parzor Foundation says. One of the community’s most prominent members, 75-year-old billionaire industrialist Ratan Tata, is a bachelor.
The community is also ageing. Dinyar Patel, a PhD candidate at Harvard University who has researched the decline of the Parsi population in India, says the percentage of Indian Parsis above 65 stands at 24.2%, much higher than the national figure of 5.5%.
Under the new program, married Parsi couples who struggle to conceive can have IVF treatment that the government will cover entirely or partly, depending on their income. The average cost of IVF treatment in India is around $4,000 a cycle. Couples often have to undertake four or five cycles of treatment.
The government says it will also cover costs for ICSI [intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection] treatment, a technique used when men have very few sperm or sperm that cannot swim properly, and other medical procedures related to infertility.
“Some need financial help in this area. Apart from your Godrejs and Tatas and a few solicitors and a few lawyers, the community is not a very rich community, but the impression is that we are a very rich community,” said Keki Daruwalla, who represents the Parsi community in the government’s National Commission for Minorities.
Couples will be able to get treatment at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai and at AIIMS in New Delhi, says the Parzor Foundation, which will work with the government and the Bombay Parsi Punchayat, another community group, to implement the plan.
The treatment isn’t just for the first child, said Mr. Daruwalla, adding that the aim is for families to have more than one child.
“It’s an important step because the government is showing concern,” said Jehangir Patel, editor of community magazine Parsiana.
He says around 40% of Parsi marriages in Mumbai, where the majority of the community lives, have been mixed marriages. This is seen as another reason for the fall in population numbers. If a Parsi man marries a non-Parsi woman, their children can be raised as part of the community, but if a Parsi woman marries outside the faith, the children are not considered Parsis.
In India’s capital, the Delhi Parsi Anjuman [Association] allows children of mixed marriages to access its temple once they have had their initiation ceremony. This isn’t the case in Mumbai and Gujarat, however, because the orthodox section of the community hasn’t allowed it, saysMr. Patel.
“We found that when a Parsi has a mixed marriage, their children tend to marry out of the community as well. If we could have people marrying back into the community, that would be great. But it hasn’t worked, as our statistics show,” added Ms. Cama.
Marrying within the community remains the preferred choice for many Parsis to ensure that their culture and identity doesn’t die. This has led to the Bombay Parsi Punchayat organizing matrimonial meetings. A website called chaalokaajkariye.com, launched in 2011, also offers a free matchmaking service for Parsi men and women worldwide.
There are more than 45,000 Zoroastrians living outside India, with around 24,000 in Iran, 15,000 in the U.S, 4,000 in the U.K., 1,800 in Pakistan, 1,500 in Australia and 1,000 in New Zealand, Mr. Patel says.
Around 1,000 people aged 24-65 are using the matchmaking service. “We’ve got 20 couples married,” said Cyrus Engineer, a Delhi-based Parsi behind the website.
“Our aim is to get the couples married as soon as possible and not to marry outside the community. That’s our priority because if they do they are outcasts,” he added.
Atish Patel is a multimedia journalist based in Delhi. You can follow him on Twitter @atishpatel.