The Parsi community, perhaps the most highly educated group in India, is shrinking. The persistent negative growth rate has set off alarm bells that it could be extinct in a century and Parsis are taking this very seriously.
Community leaders and experts say the issues are clear. Now, it’s time to act – to counsel youngsters and couples, provide effective incentives and use medical advances to correct health issues.
“I think retreats and counselling – as is the case among Catholics – should be looked at to ensure that there is better understanding among couples. There should also be counselling at fertility clinics so people are aware of the possibilities,” said Dr Pervin Dadachanji, a psychiatrist.
Dr Armaity Desai, former director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), corroborated the need for counselling, saying this should begin with the youth in a way that they understand issues of reproduction.
“In a study conducted by TISS we found that there should be more pre-marriage counselling for the youth between 18 and 25 years. This could happen in the Baugs where they live,” Desai said.
Dadachanji and Desai were among the participants in a discussion on demographics and the way forward, on the penultimate day of the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress on Sunday.
Desai pointed out that the study found many people didn’t marry not so much due to a shortage of housing, but because they chose to look after their elderly parents. “Many girls delayed getting married as they wanted to find somebody who lived nearby,” she said.
Dr Nozer Sheriar, obstetrician and gynaecologist, believes that incentives in their present form were neither desirable nor effective. He advocated supportive measures that would help couples cope with the pressures of building a family.
“Supportive measures should be given. The punchayets should give some commercial benefits, like reducing the rent slab for flats the Parsis live in,” Sheriar said.
A couple of people in the audience sought to know more about freezing eggs and sperms, to overcome pregnancy complications in late marriages.
“In all IVF centres the facility of freezing of eggs and embryos already exists,” said Dr Anahit Pundole, who manages the Bombay Parsi Punchayet’s IVF initiative. She also emphasized the use of non-invasive surgery.
Zinobia Madan, a health expert, spoke extensively on the Jiyo Parsi scheme of the government, pointing out that the action plan was ready and initiatives were necessary at the community level.
“The government has already done the empanelment of hospitals and is looking forward to render services. It has even set aside money for the advocacy component. Now, the punchayets must spread awareness,” she said.
“What we need to try and do is to individualise solutions. Everyone knows the problems and the solutions. But couples feel they do not apply to them. This is what needs to be done,” said Pundole.
What ails the community
In 2001, the population of Parsis in the country was 69,601. Over the past few decades, the population has been declining at 12%. Just 12.8% of the population was below 14 years. The worry is that at this rate their numbers could drop to only 19,382 by 2100.
The Tata Institute of Social Sciences completed a study in 2009 that identified multiple issues hurting the growth of the community. Profs Shalini Bharat, Lata Narayan and Shiv Raju examined the demographic transition, looked at family and marriage and sections like the youth and the elderly.
They discovered a high living standard, the choice to pursue further studies and careers, a high degree of individualism, difficulty in finding a suitable partner, increasing acceptability of singles, as some of the issues that restricted the growth in numbers. Low fertility, a high use of contraceptives and limited child facilities were some of the bigger issues.
Dipping fertility rate
The fertility rate among women in the reproductive age has dropped from 0.94% in 2001 to 0.89% in 2011. This is way below the required rate of 2.1% to replace the existing population. (The fertility rate is the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime.) In addition 21% of males were found to have a low sperm count.
The survey found one among every ten Parsi women is childless, which is twice the level of childlessness among Indian women. From the sample survey, of 65 women over the age of 45, 27% could not conceive due to uterine issues.
Rocking the cradle
According to data collected by doctors, in the past seven years 205 children were born to 173 couples in the community. However, in just 70% of the cases were the parents both Parsis.
The doctors said the average period to conception after marriage was 2.7 years. 17% of the couples required fertility treatment and only 2.4% of them were having their third child.
Since the Bombay Parsi Punchayet introduced in vitro fertilisation (IVF) for couples in 2004, 230 children have been born by the process. In these cases, 42% of the couples were aged 35-40 and 37% over the age of 40.
Community leaders are recommending pre-marriage counselling for youngsters, at the Baugs where Parsi families live.
Post-marriage counselling will focus on educating couples on child birth matters.
They will also examine the option of Parsi male sperm donors for single women who want to have children, initiating appropriate research on the reproductive health of women and men and conducting genetic studies to understand any other problems affecting community members.