In Khardu Badi village in Madhya Pradesh’s Jhabua district, Naval Bhuriya, 35, is hailed for setting an example by taking just Rs 525 as ‘dahej-dhappa (reverse dowry)’ from his son-in-law’s family.
Married 20 years ago, Bhuriya and his wife Satura (35) live in a two-room kuchcha house. At the time of their wedding, recalls Bhuriya, his father had to take a loan of Rs 45,000 at an interest of 10 per cent annum, to pay dowry to Satura’s family.
“It took us almost 15 years to repay the loan. Immediately after we got married, my wife and I began working at construction sites in Rajkot to pay the amount. I did not want my daughter or her husband to face the same difficulties,” he says.
In large parts of the tribal belt of Jhabua district, dominated by the Bhil, Bilala and Patelia tribes, the practice of taking dowry from the groom’s family has been an old norm. In the past few years, several residents have raised concerns about the practice, with the dowry amount going up to Rs 5 lakh in some cases.
In October 2016, Jhabua’s then collector Ashish Saxena invited girls selected for the national yoga competition from across the district for a felicitation ceremony. When he asked the girls if they needed any help, an 18-year-old burst into tears and said, “My father is selling me off.” It was then, says Saxena, that he realised how grave the problem was.
Soon, Saxena convened a meeting with ‘tadvi (leaders)’ of 822 villages across the five blocks of Jhabua district, and launched the ‘Saathidaar Abhiyaan’.
“It was not easy to end the practice in one go, so we began by convincing the leaders to cap the dowry amount at Rs 50,000 or less. Tadvis are very influential in their areas and people listen to them,” Saxena said.
On August 21, Saxena was among 15 district magistrates to be honoured with the The Indian Express Excellence in Governance Awards that celebrated the finest work done by DMs across the country.
“A series of conversations brought a revolution… No coarse measure or pressure was exerted,” Saxena said after receiving the award.
In Bhuriya’s Khardu Badi village, one of the village elders, Bhilla Tadvi (60), says he joined the Saathidaar Abhiyaan to “bring progress” to the region. “People had started indulging in petty crimes to repay loans taken for dowry. Also, at the groom’s home, the bride was made to do all chores as the family treated her as a bought entity,” he says.
According to the district administration, of the 3,580 weddings in the region between October 2016 and October 2017, no dowry was taken in 324, while in 2,302 cases, the families stuck to the Rs 50,000 cap.
In some parts, however, the campaign has not been so successful. Says Khumsinh Damor, 62, the deputy sarpanch of Makhankhui village, “We had capped the dowry amount at Rs 50,000 but it did not work. A DJ alone costs Rs 25,000, and then there are other expenses as well. So we increased the sum to Rs 1.5 lakh.”
According to a UNICEF survey, conducted in collaboration with local volunteers, of the 3,950 marriages in Jhabua district between January-December 2017, 3,200 (about 81%) stuck to the Rs 50,000 cap. But between January 2018 and July 15, 2019, of the 6,268 weddings in Jhabua, only 3,990 (about 63%) opted for the reduced dowry sum.
But Saxena is optimistic, and believes change will come slowly. “We are continuing our dialogue with residents. We cannot coerce them… We are trying to change their mindset,” he said.