Kankariya Pal (Madhya Pradesh): As the shamiana (tent) fluttered in the morning breeze, Neeladhar Solanki sat inside looking tense. Decked up in a cream suit, marigold garland and kingsize headgear, he was ready to marry. But his bride hasn’t showed up as yet.
He was not alone. Of the 14 men about to be married in a mass ceremony in the middle of a ploughed field here, three were waiting for their partners to arrive. One groom flashed out two mobile phones in anxiety, another with a sword in hand was a picture of nervous composure. And, there was commotion all around.
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As the crowd swelled to watch the spectacle, organizers armed with checklists ticked off names of couples who’ve made it to their seats near simple pyres made of bricks and twigs. Already late, the brides literally ran to take their seats as the priest began to recite the mantras, standing atop a cot to get a sweeping view of the gathering mass— and be heard through a deafeningly loud mike.
And, it’s all official.
Madhya Pradesh’s marriage scheme called Mukhyamantri Kanyadaan Yojana, or literally the Chief Minister Giving Away His Daughter plan, has become so popular that some say it’s the secret of Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s second innings at the helm of the state government. The waiting list is long, and ceremonies are being held with increasing frequency this marriage season.
In April, at least 335 couples tied the knot in the district of Indore alone. On 27 March, three-dozen pairs wed in the village of Chadravati Ganj with full police bandobast (arrangement), not far from here. And on 6 May, on the auspicious day of Akshaya Trithiya, some 280 couples wedded in the neighbouring district of Ujjain.
Some 34,000 girls were married off at a total cost of Rs 42 crore last year under the marriage scheme launched in 2006, Hiralal Trivedi, the state’s social justice commissioner, said.
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While wealthy Indians go over the top with wedding celebrations, the marriage plan for the poor is one of the many ways to fight poverty, the government insists. It’s a way to show that it cares about women, and by marrying them off with state blessing, they’re also easing the choking debts of dowry imposed on parents. So instead of the parents, the state will give away the brides. And it will also offer gifts—unofficially referred to as dahej (dowry)—to take back with her to her in-laws.
Women’s groups are, however, not impressed. Calling it a “populist” move, they criticize the government for reinforcing stereotypical notions of women—a regressive step that subverts women’s status as much as poses a hindrance to the country’s social movement opposing child marriage, dowry and sati, they say. Instead of encouraging early marriage, the government would do better by investing in girls’ education, opening boarding schools and counselling centres to counter growing dowry-related violence, they add.
“Socially, it sounds good. It’s exciting for a common man to get gifts. But it views women as a burden,” says Sudeepa Das, a young activist in Bhopal with Sudhar, which provides legal aid to prison inmates.
Sumitra Mahajan, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament from Indore, admits dowry remains an issue. “Sometimes girls can’t marry. So our chief minister said, ‘Let us get them married to give them a new start in life,’” she says.
Under India’s marriage law, a girl can marry at 18, but this minimum age requirement is rarely enforced. A 2006-07 International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) study that interviewed 51,000 youth across six states showed that 49% of the girls married before 18.
“In India, we know how the law works. It doesn’t. You can overnight become 18,” says Usha Ram, associate professor at IIPS’ public health and mortality studies. “The question is do we need mechanical solutions or should we solve the problem from the point of view of human rights?”
In Madhya Pradesh, rumours abound of underage girls getting married under the Kanyadaan scheme. With the attraction of gifts, cases of mothers remarrying, too, is heard. And in the eastern district of Shahdol, opposition parties kicked up a storm when “abdomen tests” were rumoured to have been conducted on a few women to verify allegations of remarriage. Then, last year, the state curiously launched yet another programme called Prerna Yojana. Targeted more at population control, the Prerna Yojana rewards couples for marrying at the “right age”—boys at 20 and girls, 18—and for spacing births.
Mass weddings aren’t new in India, having gained momentum as religious organizations and communities stepped in to hold these functions privately. Today, several states, including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, have set aside welfare funds for organizing marriages according to castes, communities and religion. With time, they’ve evolved into mini enterprises, as organizers get commissions from governments for holding them as corporate houses begin financing them and rival political parties settle scores over each other by drawing maximum number of willing couples to their pandals (tents).
At one of the country’s biggest weddings in Maharashtra’s Amravati district this year, the Sahara Group and Indiabulls Real Estate Ltd were among those that made “large donations”, according to Ravi Rana, an independent state legislator.
Rana, who himself wedded a south Indian actress along with 3,720 couples in January, was the chief organizer along with the Bharat Swabhiman Trust, which is supported by yoga guru Baba Ramdev. The wedding, which is bidding for a place in the Guinness World Records, cost a staggering Rs 10-12 crore, Rana claims. At Rs 10 crore, it works out to at least Rs 32,260 per couple. With the Maharashtra government offering Rs 10,000 per marriage to poor couples, Rana is now pursuing to recover the cost of Rs 4.4 crore from the state, plus the Rs 2,000 per couple commission the state offers to organizers, he says.
Rana adds that he has already received Rs 1.10 crore from the state. “The poor need support. We’ve also given jobs to 500 of them. Some are with Sahara’s Aamby Valley project now,” he says.
Both Indiabulls and Sahara did not reply to Mint’s phone calls and emails.
The government of Madhya Pradesh has set aside a modest limit of Rs 9,100 as wedding expense per girl, buying her a sari, anklets, a single bed, mattress and a pressure cooker. This rule is sometimes broken, if the chief minister himself attends. The booty is then expanded to include a gold mangalsutra, a steel almirah, a gas stove, a government official here said. For effect, Chouhan likes to be referred as a mama (uncle) of the brides on these occasions.
The wedding, which had an air of festive revelry, gets over as quickly as it began. As Bollywood music plays and the feast begins, relatives help to cart the gifts in waiting trucks. Durga, a young bride who studied till class IX, looks sheepish when asked her age. She stares at her new husband Neeladhar for help. “She’s 18. I’m 18,” the boy who has studied till class IX, says. They will live separately for a while, following local custom.
At another tent, where the lunch is spread on the ground, Jaisu Kumari, daughter of a retired postman, wept inconsolably. They arrived here the previous night by bus after an eight-hour ride. She won’t speak, but her mother, Amrat Konwar, says her daughter did not want to be married this way. “We are Rajputs and it’s a matter of pride to send our daughters away with silver and gold. But we lost all our crop last year to bad weather,” she sighs.
Like most couples here, Jaisu met her husband, Lakhan, a school teacher, only once. But they were in constant touch in the last few months over mobile phones.
“I met her once. I liked her outlook to life,” says Lakhan.
In Jindakhera village, Atmaram Charotia takes a more practical view on community marriages. A father of seven daughters and a son, the landless wage worker says he married off three of his girls this way. On 6 May, his fourth daughter, Maya, and son, Deepak got married along with 280 couples in Ujjain. “It’s about saving money, not about giving and getting,” he says.
Charotia married off his first daughter, Pooja, at a private mass marriage when she was barely 12. After the wedding, her husband, Sachin Rathore, left her at her parent’s house and did not return for two years. “I was angry because I never wanted to marry so early,” explained Rathore as the reason for not taking his wife home. “She was so young, she did not even know how to tie a sari.”
Living separately from his wife, Rathore went on to complete his class XII and worked as a mason and a farmer. He also became a cab driver. “I went back for her as I knew I’ll spoil her life if I didn’t,” he says one afternoon as he drove us to his father-in-law’s house. Now married for 10 years and father of two sons, Rathore says he can’t bear to live without his wife.
“I keep seeing her face all the time,” he says. “I love her.”