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The bare branches crisis

But Haryana imports brides and Punjab does not

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
April 16, 2013 12:32:41 am

But Haryana imports brides and Punjab does not

A consequence of India’s skewed sex ratios is the “male marriage squeeze”,or the shortage of brides. Haryana,Punjab,Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh are prominent among the regions presently affected by the marriage squeeze. Haryana is dealing with shortages by importing brides from the rest of the country — from Assam,West Bengal,Tripura,Maharashtra,Tamil Nadu,Kerala. Haryana may,in fact,be on its way to becoming India’s most multicultural state. Earlier,only older,poor,widowed,landless or jobless males sought brides from other regions. Now,even the young do so quite readily. Some find such brides more suitable,that is,less demanding than the scarce local girls. Cross-region marriages are also less expensive. Punjab and Haryana do not have very different sex ratios. Hence,the extent of the marriage squeeze in each state should be roughly the same. Curiously,there seem to be fewer cross-region marriages in Punjab.

It is important to mention here that marriage is much more of a necessity for males than for females in the prevailing gendered regimes,in which women perform all care activities for males. In agrarian India,the bachelor always cut a sorry figure and was pitied. Even during British rule,Malcolm Darling,administrator and scholar of the Punjab countryside,remarked that a man without a wife would soon lose his land. In those days,bachelors were integrated into the household,since their married brothers expected to inherit their land. This scenario,in which the bachelor was more or less taken care of,has now altered,with families becoming increasingly nuclear.

Despite the greater need for a bride,the Punjabi bachelor does not seem to be going out of his way to look for one. The answer may lie in another complicated after-effect of the Green Revolution — widespread drug addiction among Punjab’s male youth,to which many investigative reports have testified. My own fieldwork in Fatehgarh Sahib district revealed high levels of addiction among all castes,but primarily among the Jats and the Chamars. How does drug addiction affect the marriage ratio? It simply takes large numbers of young males out of the marriage market. Addiction makes such men unmarriageable. The primary concern of parents looking for a groom for their daughters is that he should not be an addict. Stories of tragedy abound,of young men who lose family fortunes,who threaten parents with suicide if not given money to feed their habit,who steal or kill for the same reason. The rampant addiction in Punjab is fed in a variety of ways,by “serious” drugs from across the border or by substances like alcohol,pills of various sorts,even cough syrup.

Pervasive drug addiction thus equalises the number of men and women entering the marriage market and reduces the need to look for brides outside the state. Hence,the different behaviour of the two neighbouring states that share a long-running trend of gender-imbalance.

Who will take care of these bachelors if they survive till old age? Can we take a leaf out of China’s book? China itself is heading towards a serious “bare branches” crisis,“bare branches” being the Chinese phrase for men who will not be able to find spouses or have a typical family life. China’s one-child policy has also ensured that in many cases there will be only one grandchild for two sets of grandparents. Such a scenario can lead to many problems. The unfavourable ratio of young to old creates problems in sustaining economic growth,social security provisioning and care of the elderly. The care problem would be aggravated if the only male child of a family fails to marry. As state provisioning of social security diminishes,individuals fall back on families for care. With the death of old parents,ageing bachelors will be left without anyone to care for them; many such bachelors will,by definition,be sibling-less. At present,the Chinese government is taking steps to address this looming problem by focusing social policy on the care of ageing bachelors.

In India,there is another category of men who are at a disadvantage in the marriage market — those who have disabilities. My research in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana reveals that many of the bachelors who cannot find wives in this time of shortage are those who suffer from some kind of disability. Their ageing parents are less able to give them a helping hand and Indian society has no safety net for such individuals besides the family. Gender imbalance and the unintended consequences of the Green Revolution may have the makings of yet another human tragedy.

The writer teaches at IIT Delhi

express@expressindia.com

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