How the Government-Funded Parsi Fertility Scheme Works

Persis Kamakhan had been trying to have a child for nine years.

After an attempt at in-vitro fertilization in 2010 didn’t work, Ms. Kamakhan says she had all but given up — IVF was unaffordable on her husband’s monthly income of $400.

Article by Shanoor Seervai | The Wall Street Journal

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Then Ms. Kamakhan, 35, learned about Jiyo Parsi, a $1.6 million program to help India’s minority Parsi community have more children and reverse its rapid population decline. Through this program, funded by India’s Ministry of Minority Affairs, couples who need help conceiving can receive free or subsidized medical treatment.

Research identifies low fertility, late and childless marriages, inter-marriage and divorce as some of the reasons that Parsis — Zoroastrians who emigrated from Persia to India more than a thousand years ago — are one of the only communities outside Europe with dwindling numbers. The Parsis have shrunk from 114,000 in the 1950s to 69,000 in 2001, or 0.007% of India’s population, according to the latest-available census data.

The Jiyo Parsi program’s witty but controversial ad campaign, launched last month, takes on these challenges by playing off common stereotypes about this tiny but influential community.

“Isn’t it time you broke up with your mom?” asks an advertisement directed at Parsi men, many of whom remain very close to their mothers well into adulthood, creators say.

Another ad suggests that a neighborhood called Dadar Parsi Colony could be renamed Hindu Colony “if you don’t get married and have kids.”

“I saw the humorous side, but it should have been a bit more subtle… a lot of people have taken offense,” said Naheed Contractor, a 27-year-old public relations professional based in Mumbai.

Ms. Contractor, who doesn’t consider herself a practicing Parsi but was born into the community, says she doesn’t want to see the Parsis die out. But she doesn’t intend to marry early, or choose her partner based on religion.

“You end up with who you end up with,” said Ms. Contractor.

The Parsi community’s exclusiveness is also contributing to its decline, she said. Conversion is forbidden, non-Parsis are not allowed inside places of worship, and intermarriage with members of other faiths and communities is frowned upon.

One ad in the Jiyo Parsi campaign says, “Who will be snooty about being superior, if you don’t have kids?”

“If you want the religion to progress, you can’t be so stuck-up,” said Ms. Contractor.

The ad campaign has “shock value to make us realize that if we don’t change our attitude, we will not be normal as a community,” said Shernaz Cama, director of the Parzor Foundation, a community organization associated with Jiyo Parsi. More than 30% of Parsis never marry, and each Parsi woman of child-bearing age has less than one child. The community’s fertility rate is 0.8, compared to a national rate of 2.5 children per woman, according to the World Bank.

The program is aimed at low-income and middle-class Parsis who wouldn’t be able to afford expensive medical treatment like IVF, which could cost up to 500,000 rupees, around $8,000, said Ms. Cama.

“There’s a misconception that all Parsis are wealthy,” she said, adding that many Parsi families in villages in the western state of Gujarat who don’t have access to computers have asked for information about the program via regular post.

The program hopes to facilitate at least 200 births in the 5 years it has funding from India’s federal government. Ten children were born through the program in 2014, including one pair of twins, said Ms. Cama.

For Ms. Kamakhan, who gave birth to her first daughter, Hufriya, in October and is getting accustomed to being woken at 4 a.m. by her cries, the Jiyo Parsi program has changed her life.

“The first time I held her, it was like I had an angel in my hands,” she said.

After years of being shunned and excluded from auspicious events like weddings because she was childless, Ms. Kamakhan says “it feels amazing to be a mother.”