At a time when the government is busy advocating a small family approach, one of its initiatives in 2013 came as a surprise to many. It advocated a scheme that encouraged a particular community to have more children. It launched the Jiyo Parsi Scheme (JPS) with an aim to encourage the Parsi Zoroastrian community to have more children and save themselves from extinction.
The national average fertility rate is 2.5, but for the Parsis it is 0.8. In other words, the community is getting smaller and smaller. The latest figures on the community’s population are not available but as per the 2001 census, it stood at 69,601. Studies on the phenomenon have cited late marriage, not marrying at all, inter-caste marriage and migration as key causes for population decline. Today demographers fear that with the community seeing 800 deaths as against 200 births per year – leading to 12 percent decline each decade, no Parsi may be alive in the coming decades.
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However, JPS has given the hope that this trend can be reversed.
Under this initiative, the government pays up to '5 lakh for the fertility treatment through assisted reproductive technologies (ART) to the Parsi married couples. The government has allocated '10 crore for a five-year period, but those working on the ground say that more funds will be required soon. The scheme of the ministry of minority affairs is being implemented by Parzor (Parsi-Zorastrian organisation) and TISS; it is supported by Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), local anjuman and panchayats.
Pearl Mistry, counsellor, JPS, recalls that a woman with multiple fibroids (in uterus) had undergone three surgeries to conceive. However, it didn’t happen since her fibroid would reappear. After four unsuccessful IUI (intrauterine insemination), she sought help from JPS. She had already shifted from Mumbai to Pune. At this point she was advised to go for IVF one more time in Pune. She is now expecting her child. “She now calls Jiyo Parsi an angel and a ray of hope,” says Mistry, with a smile.
Recalling experiences with desperate childless couples, Mistry says that once a middle-class couple in their late 30s, who had been trying to have a child for six years, came to her. After a miscarriage and five unsuccessful IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) treatments, the wife had become depressed. She had already spent her life savings on the treatment. Finally, she was taken care of by Dr Anahita Pandole, a member of the JPS team. After going through nine months of medication she was immediately put on treatment. “Recently she had her baby shower and is expecting her child,” Mistry says.
A Mumbai-based couple in their late 30s – the first to get enrolled for treatment under JPS – faced a situation when, after the fertility treatment, the wife was found to be carrying twins. She wasn’t prepared for this, and she wanted one fetus to be aborted. The doctor advised her against this. “The babies are now one month old. She recently came for the parenting workshop and shared her joy of having two children despite having work-life pressures,” says Mistry.
Another Mumbai couple who came for one of the advocacy and parenting workshops after the wife underwent five IUI attempts are parents of a four-year-old boy today. Both were also the only children of their parents. The husband was then keen on having a second child. After going through IVF again the woman delivered her second baby on September 25. “As she had the risk of premature delivery, a surgery had to be carried out to sustain the pregnancy – the cost of which too was borne by the JPS. For us this was a double whammy because this was purely an advocacy baby,” says Mistry.
Dr Katy Y Gandevia, programme coordinator, JPS, says, “Five days a week, we are receiving calls from people asking for forms, clarifications and giving suggestions – all beyond our mandate.” The JPS setup has also started receiving calls from people asking about surrogacy and adoption. “They want JPS to support surrogate birth and also in adoption,” she said.
One day, Mistry says, a man had called her at 4 am. He said, “My shadow is born, my shadow is born.” He was excited at the birth of his son after 11 years of marriage.
“Jiyo Parsi has generated positivity; 200 additional births in a year is a big leap forward and encouraging,” says Dr Shernaaz Cama, director, PARZOR – a community organisation mandated by the UNESCO to preserve Parsi Zoroastrian heritage.
Dr Gandevia says that they are preparing an interim report which will have suggestions for the government on the second round of support under the JPS.
She says though advocacy and treatment are long-term solutions, the immediate positive outcome of the effort is that Parsis are now willing to ask for help and discuss their problems. The couples who have been blessed with children under the scheme always get in touch with the organisation on their birthdays.
Decoding the modern trend
But what necessitated this step to encourage couples to have children in the first place?
“The community became very westernised and urbanised a hundred years ago. Therefore, it is also passing through the predicaments of progress – a very small replacement to a very large group of elderly people. The burden of ageing on young and middle-aged population is a problem in all developed societies. We have an added responsibility of looking after our extended families; our uncles, aunts, etc. and would not like to leave them in old-age homes. We are at this double-edged syndrome of being westernised and also ‘eastern-ised’, which is partly why it [Parsi population] has shrunk in size,” says Dr Cama.
Agrees Mistry, “The society at large is going one way and we are trying to promote something in the opposite direction.” Her job involves coaxing couples to have more than one child. “The idea is to bring about a change in the attitude of boys and girls to encourage marriage, choosing a partner at the correct age, have children – more children, take treatment, freeze eggs or do something even if they want to marry late,” Mistry adds.
A controversial media campaign in which Parsis are asked to produce more children had provoked rebuke. Is there a need for such campaigns? To this Cama says, “We discussed the matter with the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and the planning commission. They told us that in a crisis situation of extinction, advocacy is more effective than any medical treatment.”
She adds, “They were right, as our advocacy campaigns in press and workshops across the country have given more than two-third results. We promote the idea of working out a certain work-life balance and looking at family as pleasant experience, and not a burden. This has been done pro bono in a tongue-in-cheek manner in our ad campaigns, TV shows and cartoons.”
Mistry has been conducting such workshops in Delhi, Surat, Ahmedabad, Navsari, Pune, Nagpur and Secunderabad. “After sustained hormone treatment, extensive testing and sonography on even overaged couples, the chances of a healthy baby being born multiply,” adds Mistry.
The way forward
As the advocacy mission worked, the community felt the need to have bigger homes so that families could have space for more children.
Majority of Parsis live in Gujarat and Mumbai and they have the largest land holding there. Bombay Parsi Punchayet’s (BPP) is the second biggest land owner in Mumbai, after Bombay Port Trust.
The JPS office has been receiving suggestions from those willing to have children that they be provided with bigger homes as lack of space was one of the reasons for their inability to have children.
“There is never an end to one’s needs,” Dr Gandevia says philosophically.
Responding to the demand, the BPP’s charity commissioner has recently lifted the stay on allotment of community flats. Though the BPP has list of 1,000 flat seekers, it may accommodate those needing to raise families out of turn. However, with this order more than 200 flats will be up for grabs immediately.
But, Dr Gandevia, who also works as a health counsellor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), says, “It’s (having more children) about the individual’s mindset and not about the housing policy.”
(The story appears in the January 16-31, 2016 issue)