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No thank you, the Parsis can save themselves

By Sherna Gandhy
Last updated on: November 22, 2014 13:14 IST
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‘Be responsible, don’t use a condom tonight’ goes an advertising campaign that is an insult to the intelligence of a community that is by no means ignorant or illiterate, says Sherna Gandhy.

A poster from the ongoing Jiyo Parsi campaign.

The Parsi Zoroastrian community in India and the Government of India have suddenly woken up to the fact that not all is well with the demographics of this minority community.

Across the world, a few human communities face extinction even as many more continue to go forth and multiply at an alarming rate. There are tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that are down to two-digit figures. But the Indian government has not, as far as I am aware, provided money or dreamed up regenerating schemes to increase their numbers.

The Parsis, however, are another story. The community’s numbers have been steadily dropping over the decades and the government and an influential section of the community itself believes that this precipitous fall must somehow be arrested.

Since I belong to this endangered community, I am flattered that the Indian government thinks we are too precious to be allowed to dwindle into nothingness. The government, past and present, gives a damn about flora and fauna depleting at a much faster rate, impacting the environment much more disastrously than its lost Bawajis. It cares little for the Onge, Thoti, Bhiror and other such tribes that are also depleting (they are even forcing sterilisation on one, according to a recent report). But it has for some reason taken the plight of the diminishing Parsis to heart.

Consequently, the previous United Progressive Alliance government announced financial aid to help the community conceive since infertility has been singled out as the primary reason for the depleting community numbers.

The scheme may have its heart in the right place, but its mind is clearly in cloud cuckoo land. I acquit the government of the base motive of ‘vote-bank politics’ -- the usual reason for any welfare scheme -- because 50,000 odd Parsis hardly constitute a vote bank. Since the new government (read Narendra Modi, prime minister) seems by all accounts to have a soft spot for Parsis, who form too small a minority to threaten anyone, the Jiyo Parsi scheme is likely to continue.

But is it likely to be effective? And, should public money be spent on such an effort in the first place? Is it even ethical?

The scheme is based on the assumption that the falling numbers are due to the fact that Parsi couples have fewer children, fewer Parsi adults than in the general population are attracted to the institution of matrimony, and there is a high rate of infertility.

In an overcrowded country like ours, Parsis should have been lauded and feted for not adding to the one billion-plus confusion. We should be held up as examples of patriotism for limiting our families to the mandated ‘ek aur dobus. Instead, we get advertisements under the Jiyo scheme exhorting us not to use condoms, as if we are illiterate villagers who need to be told how big or small our families should be.

Couples who want to limit their families to one or two or no children at all do it for a reason. And silly ads are not going to make them change their minds. At least I hope not. If they want to give their children a good quality of life, couples must limit the number of offspring. This is common sense and not rocket science. It’s something all communities should be doing.

The economic situation is such that it is imperative that we limit the size of the family to ensure that all get their due. Women of the community are educated and work as well, and since they are the inevitable caregivers -- women’s liberation or no women’s liberation -- they are rightly reluctant to add to their burdens by becoming baby producing machines.

There are legitimate economic and social reasons why couples want to limit the size of their families, and to urge them to do otherwise is stupid. Even wealthy couples may not want to have large families -- that is a personal choice they have made. For a government or any other body to urge any section of its population to produce more (or less) children in the larger interests of the community or the country, smacks of the sort of hectoring that totalitarian regimes resort to.

Worse, it seems to be creating a feeling of xenophobia, with one advertisement reportedly showing a Parsi woman looking at a Parsi colony renamed ‘Hindu Colony’ and the text reading ‘If you don’t get married and have kids, this area will have a new name in your lifetime'. Thank God for our small numbers in this instance or we’d have the Bharatiya Janata Party's rabid affiliates threatening to burn down the baugs (colonies).

The Jiyo Parsi scheme is primarily about paying for in-vitro fertilisation for couples who have trouble conceiving and don’t have the money to pay for the treatment (a couple earning Rs 10 lakh annually will get 100 per cent coverage, Rs 10-15 lakh 75 per cent and 15.20 lakh will get 50 per cent coverage). (I fail to see how with these incomes they cannot afford the treatment, but let that pass for the moment.) In addition, Parsi boys and girls of marriageable age with treatable infertility get paid Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000 for the treatment. More money is earmarked for ‘advocacy’ and administration costs.

Only in a country like India, where inequality flourishes, would a government be able to get away with paying for the medical treatment of one community and not others. That too for a condition like infertility which is not life-threatening. If you can’t have a baby and want one, the sensible thing to do is to adopt. But oh no, Parsis cannot adopt because we follow laws of racial purity. If you just go to an orphanage and adopt a kid, you don’t know who his or her parents are. Why is this information vital? Because if they are not of the faith, then the tiny mites cannot belong to the Zoroastrian religion of their adopted parents. The laws of racial purity stipulate that only children of authentic Parsi parentage can have their Navjot ceremony after which they become bona fide Zoroastrian Parsis.

Now here is the other -- and far more important and more easily addressable -- reason why there are fewer Parsis today than a century ago. And it’s a reason that many in the community, including its non-religious governing body, the cash-rich Bombay Parsi Punchayet, refuses to address.

The community’s fatwa, albeit unofficial, against inter-faith marriages has held good for over a thousand years. But it does not do so any longer in an age when fatwas are seen as the ravings of religious fanatics. In a democratic, liberal age, and in a country where the compartmentalisation of communities has thankfully broken down to some extent, interfaith marriages will happen. Sticking your head in the sand and refusing to see the obvious is not going to do you any good. But those in control of the community’s affairs are doing just that.

'Late marriages are killing us. The average age of marriage of a Parsi girl is 29-30 and a Parsi man is about 35 years,' moans Dinshaw Mehta, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet in a newspaper interview. 'The Parsi mindset of having no child or only one child needs to be replaced by a bolder stand of having 2-3 children,' says one Zinobia Madan. ‘Bolder stand’, as if producing more children is an act of bravery. Maybe these moaners would also like to run ad campaigns exhorting youngsters not to marry outside the community.

With religion becoming increasingly irrelevant to many people in this day and age, to drive people further away from their religion rather than closer to it is simply performing hara-kiri. I understand the reasoning behind the rigid stand to not allow the children of interfaith marriages to be Zoroastrians.

I was brought up in an age when very few Parsis married outside the faith. The ethos and understanding in my family was that you should marry within the fold because our ethos is very different and marrying ‘outside’ was the sure way to disaster. Maybe and maybe not. I suppose every conservative in every community thinks the same way. But the fact remains that interfaith marriages have happened, and continue to happen, in increasingly large numbers.

That is a hard fact, however unpalatable to conservatives. And the sensible thing to do is to accommodate the new social dynamic. Otherwise we are just haemorrhaging numbers and coming up with silly exhortations to procreate at a faster pace. Zoroastrian women (not men) who marry outside the faith too are cast off, an action that only religious zealots would tolerate so completely heinous and illogical is it.

According to a Tata Institute of Social Sciences survey, another reason for the fall in numbers is that many Parsi adults don’t wish to marry. That is a fact, and again it’s a personal choice. If you are happy, comfortable and financially secure being single, why marry?

Admittedly, this is an unusual viewpoint in a country which hounds its population to marry, that too at the earliest possible age, and damn the consequences. But to be made out to be a ‘mummy’s boy’ (according to the offensive Jiyo Parsi ad campaign) because you don’t want to take on a wife and kids, is unfair. (Incidentally, many men don’t marry till late because they may want to marry non-Parsis and their parents object, so they wait until they wear down the opposition.)

Emigration is yet another reason. Hordes of Parsis have left India and settled abroad, mostly in the West, preferring that way of life. That again follows a social dynamic (but thankfully I don’t see adverts exhorting them to return ‘home’).

Community demographics will and must change. The thing to do is to find practical responses, not dogmatic ones. Jiyo Parsi is a waste of the country’s resources. Fortunately, the number of benefactors, if any, will be too small to drain the country’s coffers.

The fact is that Parsis can save themselves. They don’t need to run to the government cap in hand to do so.

I saw the following comment on a Times of India website and it correctly sums up the position: ‘Agree. Parsis are wonderful people, but surely their survival as a distinct ethnic group is a matter for them. No one is preventing them from marrying earlier and having more children. It's actually rather insulting to treat them as one would an endangered species, to be conserved by busybody governments.’

Sherna Gandhy is a Pune-based journalist.

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Sherna Gandhy