Amid its fight against a surging demographic, India has taken up the responsibilities of a depleting community — the Parsis — nestled in the middle of its diverse cultural smorgasbord.
The 4-year-old government-mandated Jiyo Parsi scheme has so far resulted in the wails of 160 Parsi babies enlivening a few Indian households, but several more nests still remain barren and quiet.
For 35-year-old Parsi Farnaz Chavda, however, her maternal home in Gujarat is lit with the laughter of her 5-month-old Tianaz.
“She was all I asked for,” Chavda, a physiotherapist at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, said. “Everyone was overjoyed at her arrival.”
Parsis are an Indian community whose roots are Persian and their religious belief includes the, a monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism, Loren Lybarger, associate professor of Classics and World Religions at Ohio University, said.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world that began in ancient Iran approximately 3500 years ago. Lybarger explained that over the years, the Sasanian Empire, the cradle of Zoroastrianism, met with several conflicts with Islamic invaders. After the Arab conquest, several Iranians fled Persia to escape persecution and those who landed on the Western coast of India in 10 A.D. formed the Parsi community.
Today, Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s smallest religions. According to a 2012 survey by Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA), there are 111,201 followers remaining worldwide, 14,306 of which live in the United States. There is a discernible distress among Zoroastrians, not only in the U.S., but also around the world regarding the probable extinction of their faith.
Depleting numbers has especially been a concern for the subsection of Zoroastrians in India, who consider its heritage distinct from the global Zoroastrian society. The Parsi Community is one of the six minority communities officially declared by the Indian government, according to the Indian Constitution Articles 29 to 32.
The Parsi community is particularly revered for their contribution to arts, crafts and Indian industrialization. The urgency to sustain the distinct culture nudged the members to implement steps to safeguard their identity.
In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Parzor Foundation conceptualized the Jiyo Parsi Scheme with the support of the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) political party, along with a few other organizations, in September 2013. The program marked its second milestone with the Jiyo Parsi Phase II campaign launched in July, 2017. So far, the Indian government has allocated a whopping 1.7 million dollars to the program.
The term “Jiyo Parsi,” which directly translates to “Live Parsi,” was coined by Lalit Panwar, the former secretary in charge of Ministry of Minority Affairs under the Indian government. The coinage was an attempt to underscore the immediate need of the community— to keep the population afloat.
Panwar, vice-chancellor of the Rajasthan State Skills University, said several factors were considered before the government went ahead with the community-centric welfare project. Factors include significant declining numbers, unique cultural heritage and contributions made by iconic Parsi industrialists like Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata and Ardeshir Godrej.
Parzor Foundation was initially concerned with preserving the art and culture of the community. But their frequent business trips to Parsi-dominated areas in southern Gujarat and Maharashtra revealed empty homes, deserted villages and otlas (verandahs) void of the sounds of children.
“The remaining Parsis would come up to us on our trips and ask us, ‘With such low Parsi population what use (is) preserving our art and culture?’ ” Shernaz Cama, director of Parzor Foundation, said. “That’s when we realized that this is a problem we need to address.”
It’s difficult to sell a program that advocates greater reproduction in a country that is already dealing with a high population density. India is the second-most populated country with 1.3 billion people and continues to expand with a growth rate of 21 percent.
According to the 2011 Indian Population Census, the Parsi community, which started from a population of 114,000 in 1941, has shrunk to 57,264 members.
To study the Parsi population and to determine if it’s actually endangered, Parzor Foundation collaborated with Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Researchers found that the Parsi demographic across the subcontinent is displaying a decline of nearly 9 percent and the community comprises of 0.0069 percent of the Indian population.
The community on an average contributes about 200 Parsi babies to the population each year, Cama said, and the Jiyo Parsi Scheme was responsible for the additional 160 babies born in the last four years. Although Cama sounds optimistic, some within the community are still doubtful about the scheme’s impact.
“I really don’t know if it’s very realistic,” Shelley Daroga Subawalla, a proprietor of the Parsi spice company Zarin’s Secrets, said. “I don’t see it making a huge difference unless the numbers increase drastically.”
Parzor Foundation discovered that Parsis tend to delay marriage, as women routinely wait to get an education and get their careers on track before marrying. The average age of marriage for men in the community is 32 to 35, and women don’t marry until the ages of 28 to 30.
Cama explained that women, especially within the community, often feel demotivated to start a family before they have established their careers because they see family planning as a hindrance to career prospects. But chances of infertility increases after the age of 25, which makes reproduction less likely, Cama added.
“Education and wisdom don’t always go together,” Cama said.
Other issues that have led to the drop in the numbers of Parsis include living expenses. Parsis are known to be concentrated in the south of Gujarat and Mumbai in southwest India. According to the Mercer’s 24th annual cost of living survey, the latter continues to bear the highest lifestyle expenses across India. Cama said the high cost of living is a strong deterrent for individuals to have families.
“They hear Tata, Godrej, and Wadia and think that everyone is rich in the community when we aren’t,” Cama said, referring to well-known wealthy Parsi families.
The scheme is taking a multipronged approach to solve the problems that the community faces. Implementers are relying on advocacy, health care and assistance for reproduction.
Counseling sessions are provided to couples with infertility, familial or marital issues. Under the advocacy campaign, the scheme uses social media, films and advertisements in print and electronic media, matrimonial meets and namesake websites to promote its goal.
While the first chapter of the scheme sailed somewhat smoothly, the second phase that launched last year met with criticism. It led with increasingly aggressive advertisement series commissioned by the Jiyo Parsi team and developed by the Madison World advertising agency, Cama said.
The ads intend to encourage the Parsi community to reproduce early and in large numbers. One of the ads depicts a young Parsi woman staring vacantly into space while the caption contains empty boxes to check off next to the words: “Honda Sedan car, 1 lakh rupees (1400 USD) salary per month, 2 bedroom apartment in Napean Sea Road. Wait to check all boxes and you may check into an old age home.”
While some scrutinized those captions as bawdy and sexist, Cama believes the people within the community resonate with the sentiments of the advertisements. Cama said the glaringly propagandistic content of the ads were attempted to evoke a “shocking” response.
“We deliberately tried to be in-your-face with the ads,” Cama said. “And it turned out to be a wonderful controversy.”
The scheme also provides material support by offering funds for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments, child care support and elderly assistance to Parsi couples. Each couple is provided up to 8 lakh rupees or 11,000 US dollars to conceive a child.
However, Pearl Mistry, a counselor of the Jiyo Parsi team, said despite the provision of funds, there are several other issues that couples face that deter them from pregnancy.
Chavda, who got married at 33, said she and her husband began trying to conceive a baby right after marriage, but to no avail. After a couple of years, Chavda’s uncle handed her a brochure that acquainted her with the program.
The couple made several trips to Mistry who helped them acquire the funds for the IVF treatment. Chavda said the free IVF treatments did little to curb her anxiety that rose from not conceiving during her first try.
“When I didn’t get pregnant at first, my husband and I, we were both upset,” Chavda said. “I told myself, sometimes there are failures, but chances are you will succeed.”
The couple finally conceived on their second IVF cycle. Mistry said the pregnancy attempts can be daunting and discouraging, and that is why they provide round-the-clock counseling services to keep couples motivated to keep trying.
The scheme, however, continues to receive flack for pushing an agenda that appears to be, among other things, discriminatory. The Jiyo Parsi program follows the Parsi traditions of patrilineage in acquiring the benefits of the scheme that are only availed by couples where the male is a Parsi. In the case where the female is a Parsi and the male isn’t, the scheme doesn’t help said couple in conception.
“We are not a very conservative community. We are rather modern in our outlook vis-à-vis non-Parsis,” Subawalla said. “But where religion is concerned, we are very orthodox in that domain.”
Marzban Pavri, a priest at Delhi Parsi Anjuman, an association for Parsis in Delhi, said Zoroastrianism generally does not recognize religion conversion—an outsider cannot convert to Parsi. However, since a child carries their father’s name, Pavri said the female partner’s religion isn’t questioned and the child is considered a Parsi.
“We have two camps,” Subawalla said. “One camp says that we need to change our outlook. Since we are dying out and we can’t afford to be so rigid. And the other camp says that we lose our authenticity if we become a little liberal.”
Several Parsi women feel there is a persisting discrimination within the community against women who choose to marry non-Parsis, and those like Subawalla feel there needs to be a change.
“We need to give women and men the same religious rights,” she said.
Jim Engineer, the secretary of Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Chicago, said the current state of Parsis in India is tied to leadership decisions made within India’s Parsi Zoroastrian community over the past 50 years in particular. Engineer blames the fracture in the community’s existence on the rigid edicts and policies of non-inclusion that he feels drove a significant number of Parsi Zoroastrians away. However, he said the community has taken subtle steps toward inclusion in religious traditions, which hasn’t gone unappreciated.
“What’s clear is that maintaining the status quo is not sustainable,” Engineer, co-chair of the public relations committee of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, said. “Ultimately, we have to look beyond physical population decline as an issue, and address the concepts of inclusion and acceptance to build a harmonious community.”
When Cama was questioned about the complications that follow the Jiyo Parsi Scheme’s agenda, she said they aren’t pressuring anyone to have a baby, but the scheme is just an effort to encourage the community to sustain itself.
“Nobody is telling you ‘go have a baby,’ ” Cama said, “We’re just saying if you want to have a baby, we’re here for you.”
Editor’s Note: In the summer of 2018, Post reporter Bharbi Hazarika traveled through India to speak with members of the Parsi community and conduct research for the article.