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Jiyo Parsi: Regenerative or regressive?

Jiyo Parsi aims to correct declining rates of the Parsi population in India.
Photograph of a Parsi family, reportedly taken between 1890 and 1923 in India.

Rollout of the Jiyo Parsi (Live Parsi) programme continues in India – and continues to attract controversy.

The programme aims to revitalise the falling Parsi population in India. Parsis are a religious minority in India, descended from Zoroastrians who originally settled in India between the eighth and tenth centuries to escape persecution in their native Persia.

Declining population

Parsis are one of the country’s most prominent subcultures, with historic involvement in fields ranging from commerce and industry to atomic research. Despite this, their population has been on a steady decline, dropping 12 percent on average every census decade whilst India’s population increases by 21 percent. Between 2001 and 2011, the drop was even more precipitous, with a 22 percent decline according to The Hindu.

The Parsi population in India currently numbers 57,264 according to the most recent census data. This equates to just 0.004 percent of the country’s total population. By 2020, some estimates say Parsis will number only 23,000 – 0.0002 percent.

In a bid to address this, the government launched the Jiyo Parsi programme in 2014, which entered its second phase earlier this year. With a budget of Rs 10 crore (US $1.5 million) over four years, the scheme looks to increase the Parsi birth rate by administering free in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment to couples who are struggling to conceive.

Reports say the scheme has led to 120 births since being launched. It has been championed as a success, although births would need to increase to reverse the trend of decline. However, the initiative has not been without controversy.

‘Clannish, misogynistic and classist’

In phase I, an ad campaign encouraging Parsis to start families was heavily criticised. It was called “clannish, misogynistic and classist, all at once” and accused of treating Parsis like “pandas…[obligated] to procreate.” Many accuse the scheme of stigmatising women in particular, with The Wire calling it “regressive and patriarchal.”

Jiyo Parsi has also been opposed by those who think it is promoting “selective racial breeding” amounting to “eugenics.” Parsi traditionalists emphasise ethnic purity. Consequently, breeding is to be kept within the community. This is to the extent that children born to a Parsi mother and a non-Parsi father are not initiated into the Zoroastrian faith (the same rule, interestingly, does not apply in reverse.)

“Welcoming these children into the fold should have been the most obvious solution to increasing community numbers,” says Simon Patel, a Parsi who opposes Jiyo Parsi. “Instead these children and their parents are being shunned.”

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