Caste, dowry and the illusion of scarcity

640px-Indian_wedding_Delhi

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In my last post, I talked about the origin of dating and the female mate selection strategy. Some of you may have thought that, the traditional Indian marriage is better where parents search for matches for their children. In this post, I will talk about the traditional marriage market in India and try to dispel some of the myths about it.

First of all, the traditional marriage market in India is highly fragmented, due to multiple linguistic divisions, religious sects, castes, sub-castes, gotras, horoscopes, etc. Within each segment there exists hypergamy i.e., the tendency to marry up, especially among the female’s family. In the past, almost all decisions regarding marriage was in the hands of the parents. Nowadays, the parents mostly screen the prospective matches and the man or the woman has the final say. While hunting for prospective matches, parents frequently look for a “good family”. This term usually has different meanings for the parents of the man and of the woman. For the man’s parents, it usually means a family belonging to the same caste segment and economic strata as them. But the girl’s parents, it is just another term for hypergamy.

The woman’s parents typically look for a prospective groom who is more educated than the woman and has a higher income. If the woman is less educated and unemployed, then the man’s education and wealth is compared to the girl’s father’s or to that of other relatives. Now, there may be several men fitting these two criteria for a women in their town or city, but the additional criteria like religious sect, caste, sub-caste, etc. reduces the number of prospective grooms. Thus, an artificial scarcity is created. This raises the value of the grooms greatly. The parents of the grooms also apply several of their own criteria while bride-hunting, but there remains a degree of flexibility. Due to the perceived scarcity of grooms, there occurs a bidding war in the form of dowry price.

The concept of dowry may sound counter-intuitive because of the high male to female gender ratio in India. The value of females should ideally be higher in such a society. In China, for example, there is the concept of bride price, where the man pays a hefty sum to the woman’s family. But in India with its segmented market and artificial scarcity, there is still dowry. Even though asking for dowry it now illegal, it may exist in the form of bridal gifts given by the woman’s family at the time of her marriage. These gifts usually include whatever it is thought to be essential to start a new household, like a vehicle, a television, kitchen appliances, furniture etc. Expensive jewellery, clothes, watches etc. may be included. Sometimes it may also include an apartment or house. The high cost of dowry has been one of the primary cause of female infanticide in India since the medieval times. This continues today in the form of female foeticide.

Usually, the tradition of dowry is blamed on the greed of men, but it is actually a side-effect of hypergamy. The castes were originally based on occupations. They are from an era, when the son inherited the father’s property and followed him into his vocation. They don’t carry much meaning in today’s urban society where public education is almost free and there are a variety of occupations which are open to all. Rural regions in India still cling strongly to caste though. Yet, caste lives on the minds of many Indian parents in urban. There can be only so many educated and high earning men within their sub-caste. Since they are unwilling to look outside their own sub-caste, they are forced to raise their bids. This usually done by increasing the dowry or value of the bridal gifts. Some parents spend hundreds of thousands of rupees educating their daughter. The degree is almost never used as the woman becomes a trophy wife. This is another way of raising value of one’s daughter in a groom-scarce market. Some states which introduced affirmative policies in their universities, like reservation of seats for women or subsidised fees, saw their plans backfiring as they essentially created factories for trophy wives instead of empowering women.

Men also face scarcity as there are also a fixed number of young beautiful women in their sub-caste. The men who are the bottom of the barrel in their segment have to be flexible and look outside their traditional criteria. In states like Haryana, where the bride-shortage is acute due to the skewed gender ratio, men are looking for brides in states as far as Kerala. The men who are the cream of their segment, can easily get a bride. But, sometimes after marriage they may feel that the dowry given was below their worth and may demand more. In some other cases, many men enter marriage without knowing how much marriage costs and find that their dowry money doesn’t cover it beyond the first few years. This sometimes results in the bride’s torture, suicide or murder.

I am not absolving the men who do these things. But, a lot of the problems caused by the artificial scarcity can be fixed, if it were not for the caste system and hypergamy. For example, if they are unable to find a good groom in their own segment, parents could look for a similar groom in a lower caste or settle for groom earning a lower salary. With the blurring of caste lines, we will some of these happening and the segments disappearing. At the same time, the dating market will continue to expand. But, hypergamy will continue to exist as its genetic for women. According to a survey, only 5.4 percent of the total of marriages in India are inter-caste marriages. Some of the government policies such as reservation of university seats and public-sector jobs for lower castes, may have slowed the downfall of the caste system. Some lower caste women from those scheduled castes may find themselves reluctant to marry into a higher caste, because their offspring would lose those benefits.

At the end of this all, Indian weddings tend to have the most elaborate and expensive rituals and traditions. For the middle class, a wedding can wipe out years of savings of the couples’ parents. It is typically way more expensive for the woman’s family. Thus, many prefer a boy child to save on wedding and dowry costs later. Indian weddings tend to be an event to show off to the neighbours, relatives and acquaintances. Some banks even offer wedding loans but for small amounts. The total amount that a middle class couple will save, if they simply get married in a family court, can usually serve as the down payment for a house or apartment. But, most Indian parents are concerned about their prestige rather than their savings. Frequently, the groom’s family claim to be offended if the party thrown by the bride’s family is not lavish enough. In my opinion, the groom should insist on getting a court marriage and use the total money saved from his and the women’s parents to buy a house or make an investment. A single dinner feast with close friends and families should be enough.

So as you saw, traditional marriage market has its own share of headaches. The dating market may erase some of the lines but will create more competition. In upcoming posts, I will talk about these topics in greater detail.

Advertisements

One thought on “Caste, dowry and the illusion of scarcity

  1. Pingback: Arranged marriage still beats dating in India | theburdenless

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s