It’s not uncommon for people in many countries to spend monstrous sums of money on weddings. But in India, they take that to a whole new level.
I know Indian parents who have poured their life savings into their children’s weddings. Last year Janardhana Reddy, an Indian businessman and former minister, made international headlines when he paid an estimated 5 billion rupees (AUD$96.1 ) for his daughter’s wedding).
Middle class urban families often invite thousands of guests and serve mountains of food. This is the culmination of the arranged marriage system in India, where the search for a match starts with high hopes and humility and all too often ends with gauche demonstrations of pride and status.
So it’s mildly amusing that a politician plans to introduce a bill into the Indian Parliament that aims to prohibit extravagant and wasteful expenditure on weddings. Yes, you heard that right.
Congress MP Ranjeet Ranjan’s ambitious private members bill seeks to limit the number of guests at a wedding, as well as the number of dishes that can be served. Well, good luck with that.
Absurdly, the Marriages (Compulsory Registration and Prevention of Wasteful Expenditure) Bill 2016, says any family in India that spends more than 500,000 rupees (just under $AUD10,000) on a wedding must contribute 10 per cent of that amount to a government welfare fund to go towards the weddings of girls from poor families.
The intention may be sound, but after factoring in the potential for corruption, the impossibility of enforcement and the power of long-standing cultural traditions, the chances of it succeeding are close to nil.
Not to mention that six similar bills in the past 20 years have all achieved nothing. Fact-checking website Factly.in points out that four of these bills have lapsed and the other two are still showing as pending in the lower house.
There are endless stories of Indian-origin men in Australia who acquire permanent residency only to use it as a bargaining chip when searching for a bride.
Such bills would never pass muster in Australia as there would, one would hope, be an outcry over the very idea of the long arm of the State reaching into people’s private lives.
Lavish Indian weddings, and they happen in Australia too, are all too often the cousin of ugly dowry related incidents. In India, people have committed suicide in the face of debt stress exacerbated by the pressure to meet dowry related costs. In Australia, the pressure to maintain status by stumping up thousands of dollars for dowries and weddings is a scourge in the community, and a nightmare to stamp out.
There are endless stories of Indian-origin men in Australia who acquire permanent residency only to use it as a bargaining chip when searching for a bride. And there is no shortage of parents willing to pay a large dowry to secure a groom who is an Australian permanent resident.
Dowries these days come in the form of demands: demands for white goods, 22-carat gold jewelry, property, vehicles and plain hard cash. This is the dark underbelly of the arranged marriage system.
Arranged marriages have always been about securing the economic future of two families through a pragmatic union of two young people (love had nothing to do with it). But with increasing wealth and commercialization, dowries – an integral part of the set-up – have ballooned and become a “price” for the groom.
And demands for more dowry sometimes continue well after the wedding is over. In Australia such demands have ended in numerous cases of domestic violence or death.
Manjula O’Connor, the director of the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health has campaigned tirelessly for legislation to outlaw dowries in Australia. But her efforts have been hampered by men such as Vasan Srinivasan, a member of the Australian Multicultural Council, who argue that dowry related domestic violence can be managed through community education and does not require legislative change.
Arranged marriages have always been about securing the economic future of two families through a pragmatic union of two young people (love had nothing to do with it).
Like Ranjeet Ranjan and her Marriages bill in India, O’Connor is working against the odds to stop the negative fallout from centuries-old traditions – fallout that is happening in advanced countries like Australia.
In March 2016, the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended that within 12 months the State Government should expand the law to include forced marriages and dowry-related abuse as a form of domestic violence.
The year is now up. But this recommendation has still not been implemented. The Government has instead decided to engage in more “community consultation” within a time frame that is “to be confirmed”.
“Consultation on this recommendation is a complex and sensitive issue and requires adequate time to ensure appropriate and meaningful engagement with affected communities,” says the Government’s website.
Sounds like stalling to me. The question is, why?
Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter: @sushidas1