Print edition : March 09, 2007

The instant weddings in the eastern districts of Uttar Pradesh highlight a disturbing fact - the State's very low sex ratio.

AMAN SETHI in Varanasi

Brides of Dhanmahipur village in Varanasi district leading a marriage procession. In contrast to western U.P., the sex ratio is above 1,000 in the backward eastern districts.-

IT probably was not the most orthodox of liaisons, but he seemed like a nice boy with a steady job and a sizable area of land, and so Sunita (name changed) married him. Smiling self-consciously, she describes how he arrived at her village of Sarai Mohana in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh as part of a guided tour by eligible bachelors and their families. "He approached my father, while his younger brother met my cousin's family. We all went to Bidapur in Agra district, saw their house, and a month later we were married." At the time of Sunita's marriage, Sarai Mohana and the rest of Varanasi district existed on the periphery of marriage tours, but three years on, her village finds itself at the centre of the chatpat shaadi (instant wedding) circuit.

Matrimonial alliances in Varanasi and other parts of eastern U.P. have happened at such a hurried pace that Sunita's wedding seems almost sedate in comparison. Anxious grooms from western U.P. usually arrive in teams of 10 or more, with a pre-assembled baraat (wedding procession) of friends and family in tow, meet with an eligible and willing bride through a local matchmaker, hurriedly exchange marriage vows at the local temple, and return home in a matter of days.

The migration and movement of women has often produced anxieties among the communities from which migration occurs and the state and media organisations that track such movement. Migration, particularly of women, is often spoken of in the same breath as exploitation and trafficking and often described as an involuntary act forced upon women. While the realities of trafficking, forced prostitution and bonded labour cannot be ignored, they do not account for a huge number of women who crisscross the country every year. Census 2001 reveals that women account for 71 per cent, or 216.7 million of the 307 million cases, of total migration reported by place of birth. When further disaggregated, the data suggest that 65 per cent of women migrate because of marriage. While the veracity of the findings on the motivation to migrate has been questioned by academics, who argue that female labour migration is rendered invisible for a range of reasons, statistics do suggest that marriage is a significant factor behind migration. Then what makes the weddings of Sunita, her cousins and the 30 other women so different?

The chatpat shaadis can be seen as the point of intersection of two separate and disturbing phenomena: the pull factor that sends men from western U.P. in search of brides to the eastern districts and the push factor that makes the women accept these men.

While a ratio of 950 females per 1,000 males is considered normal in India, most countries tend to have more women than men. The national average in India, as per Census 2001, is 933. A State-wise break-up of the data ranks U.P., with a sex ratio of 898 way below in the rankings, only slightly better than Punjab, Haryana and Sikkim. The sex ratio of the population in the western districts of the State is below 900, while it is above 1,000 in some of the eastern districts.

"There are no women in western Uttar Pradesh," said Motilal Rajbhar. Motilal's daughter Gita is one of the most recent brides to have married a boy from Moradabad, a district in western U.P. with a sex ratio of 885.

"So any boy from Moradabad who does not belong to the upper caste, who does not have a steady job, who is above 25 years of age, or who is looking to get married for a second time, cannot hope to find a local girl willing to marry him," he says.

A CLINIC ANNOUNCING its gender determination services in Varanasi.-AMAN SETHI

Moving from west to east along the map of U.P. shows a sex-ratio pattern that mirrors the path that the chatpat shaadi circuit traces. Saharanpur, the western-most district, has a sex ratio of 868; Muzaffarnagar has 872; Agra, one of the districts that a number of women marry into, has a distressing ratio of 852; and Mathura's figure is equally disturbing at 841. Azamgarh, one of the eastern-most districts, has a healthy ratio of 1,026, followed by Jaunpur at 1,021. Varanasi, while still much lower than the benchmark 950, has a sex ratio of 908.

Thus, one of the primary push factors in these inter-district marriages is the frightening unavailability of women in the western districts, which points to an undeclared genocide directed at girl children, denying them the right to life.

"Freedom for Rs.200!" exclaim the large painted doors of Mukti Clinic in Varanasi. Ostensibly a maternal health centre, it is only one of the several prenatal gender determination clinics that have sprung up all over the State. Heavily protected by local mafias, clinics such as these offer parents the option of aborting female foetuses right up to the fifth month of pregnancy and could be one of the biggest factors in the State's abysmal sex ratio. A large body of academic and statistical work has illustrated that economic prosperity is actually one of the largest contributing factors towards worsening sex ratios. Prosperity gives parents access to ultrasound machines that allow for gender determination and surgical procedures to enable female foeticide.

However, as Mukti Clinic illustrates, a complete package of gender determination and subsequent abortion can cost as little as Rs.200 in the first month and Rs.950 in the fifth month - a period when abortions are rarely performed. A district-wise examination of per capita incomes in the State only substantiates this prosperity-sex ratio thesis.

While Varanasi's status as a major town would suggest moderately higher per capita incomes, the crisis in one of Varanasi's oldest industries has spelt disaster for one of its most vulnerable communities - the Boonkar or weaver community, to which Sunita, Gita and Motilal Rajbhar belong.

For long the makers of one of Varanasi's most famous export item - the Benaras silk brocaded sari - the Boonkars are one of the most impoverished groups in the State today. A decade of economic reforms and policy changes have reduced the once-thriving community of almost 500,000 weavers to penury. "There are many reasons for the crisis, which include shifts in demand and changing customer preference," says Shruti Raghuvanshi, from the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, a Varanasi-based advocacy group. "But government policy is perhaps the most significant factor."

Once a source of employment for entire families, the handloom sector is in crisis. This has spelt disaster for the weaver community of Varanasi.-AMAN SETHI

A book published by the organisation explains that a decade of liberalised textile policy saw the government reduce the number of items reserved for exclusive production by handlooms to 11 from the 22 recommended under the Textile Policy of 1985. Also an increase in the prices of raw silk was accompanied by an increase in cheap Chinese remade silk imports. India also abolished quantitative restrictions on silk imports in 2001 on the basis of its agreements with the World Trade Organisation.

This resulted in thousands of handlooms across Varanasi district falling silent. "Each house in this village had at least two handlooms," says Bhagoti Devi, a resident of Bhagva Nalla, a weaver's colony outside Varanasi. "Now there are just four in the entire village." In the absence of weaving as a vocation, the only work now available in the village is that of construction labour. It is possible that the crisis has been the major push factor for the women of the weaver community.

Chatpat weddings are usually arranged with the help of a local facilitator or dalal. The dalal, who is often a woman, is usually one who is either from Varanasi and has married someone from western U.P., or vice-versa, and so has family in the villages of both the bride and the groom. Channoo Rajbhar is the dalal in Sarai Mohana and has got 30 young women from his village married off to young men from Moradabad over the past three years.

The dalal is charged with verifying the antecedents of both sides and arranging the modalities and logistics of the wedding. "Since the weddings are usually conducted within days of the couple meeting, a lot of planning is required," explains Rajbhar. "Pandits have to be arranged, a village feast has to organised, gifts have to arranged." However, the ultimate responsibility rests with the parents. "We usually arrange a meeting of the parents, after that we are no longer accountable."

The biggest draw of a chatpat wedding is the limited economic burden placed on the parents. While each case is different, dowry is very rarely taken in such alliances. In fact, the financial insecurity of the weaver community implies that the groom's side often pays the lion's share of the wedding expenses. The dalal extracts a percentage of the costs as commission - and these are entirely borne by the groom's family.

There is obviously a fair amount of money to be made on commissions; one family told Frontline that the money for their daughter's wedding was loaned to them by the dalal.

However, there is a growing number of instances in which young girls have married apparently wealthy landowners from Agra, only to find themselves in a one-room hutment in a faraway village, isolated from their family and support systems.

Gunja, a 16-year-old from Sarai Mohana, and her parents took all possible precautions before marrying her off to a youngster from Nandapur village in Agra district. Her parents met the groom's parents, and even visited their house in Agra. However, it was only after she was married and went to live with her husband that she realised that the couple posing as his parents were in fact his relatives, and the concrete house her parents had been shown was not his house. Gunja spent the next six months practically captive in a one-room mud hut before her parents arrived and rescued her. She now lives with her parents and refuses to return to her matrimonial home.

Uttar Pradesh's chatpat weddings are the latest addition to the larger national marriage market that functions along a complex and intricate network of brides, grooms and agents. States such as Punjab and Haryana have taken to sourcing brides from States as far away as West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Tripura, apart from neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.

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