“Seeing us, others will follow”

The Nandura mass weddings are marked by simplicity and enable very poor landless workers to get married with no major costs to themselves. Photo: P. Sainath

Mass weddings at low cost are one state-sponsored programme that has begun to work. The trend has begun to catch on.

Getting 55 weddings done in 90 minutes flat won’t rank as a record. Getting them done at no cost to the very poor families involved might qualify as one. That these are actually part of a successful Maharashtra government programme surely sets this up for a Guinness Book entry. The 55 couples in Nandura tehsil of Buldhana district are all Muslims. And there’s a dual minority angle to it — 18 of them are ‘Adivasi Bhil Muslims’ as the event’s organisers call them. The ceremony is much like a civil wedding — except that the brides and bridegrooms take their vows at different venues. Ritual is at a minimum.

“That’s it then,” says Haji Muzameel Ali Khan of the Ashrafi Educational and Welfare Society, Nandura. “None of these families paid for the mass weddings as you can see and verify.” We did. Mr. Khan, one of the event’s main organisers, and his colleagues have overseen nearly 500 mass marriages in the past few years. The trend of having weddings that cut costs but retain dignity for a heavily indebted people is catching on in Vidarbha. The State government has spent Rs.33 crore on such weddings since 2006 — a fraction of what has been spent on utterly futile projects in the same six districts of this region since that year. It has covered 31,000 couples in a region of over one crore people. That works out to just around Rs.10,000 per couple. Which is very cheap in a time of distress, soaring prices, and a crippling farm crisis.

It’s the wedding season, and the number of mass marriages is growing. This is a very different picture from, say, 2006. The ones Mr. Muzameel Khan has helped organise stand out for their simplicity. There is no band, no blaring loudspeakers. “Each family is limited to ten guests” he says. “Beyond that, they have to feed the guests at their own homes.” The couples here are mostly from extremely poor backgrounds. Several are landless agricultural labourers doing any work they can find for a pittance. Or down-and-out weavers. “Most of them,” he says, “could not have afforded getting married. Poverty runs deep amongst Muslims here.”

“I have had two of my three daughters married this way,” says Durrani Habib Khan. He is a landless worker who shelled out Rs.30,000 for the marriage of his first daughter 20 years ago. “That could be at least Rs.1 lakh [or more] in today’s money,” says his neighbour Syed Shamsuddin.

“People have sold homes to get their daughters married,” says Waheeda Begum, mother of Bilkees Anjum — one of the brides at the mass wedding. Her words capture some of the damage done by mounting wedding and dowry costs in Vidarbha. More so in six of its districts where lakhs have been ruined by the agrarian crisis. Where even the State government says three lakh families were unable to get their daughters married “due to the financial crisis they faced”. This has been cited as a factor in the suicides of some farmers. And in a few cases, of their unmarried daughters as well. Weddings are a major source of debt and stress for most.

Also remarkable at Nandura is the absence of political leaders exhorting the masses to lead a simple life. As the mass wedding trend has gained ground, there’s a scramble amongst politicians to be seen as inspiring and leading the process. So the events get bigger, more unwieldy and lose focus. A recent event in Gondia saw tens of thousands of guests gather to see 300 couples wed. It also saw one of the brides die the following day, according to local newspaper reports, of sunstroke. But political leaders, minor and major, are eager to promote simple and austere weddings for the masses. Even Ministers who have conducted some of the costliest weddings ever seen in central India for their own daughters.

At Nandura, though, there are no speeches, no sermons. Just a brief statement on the correctness of doing it this way. And then the rapid weddings of the 55 couples. Muzameel Khan himself is a district secretary of the Congress Minority Cell. But he does not cash in on this from the podium in ways so visible at similar functions. “This is serious,” he says. “Even now there are many marriages on hold or completely stopped in this tehsil. There are many unmarried young people past 25.” It is also, “an interlinked problem. The farm crisis has seen weavers’ incomes collapse as they lose their first market”. His friend Syed Fahimuddin is hopeful: “With even the better off approving this mass wedding idea, it could spread quickly.”

How does the economics of this work? At some levels, it doesn’t. “We do not draw a paisa from the Rs.10,000 the government gives each couple. That belongs to them,” says Muzameel Khan. “The government provides Rs.2,000 per couple to the NGO that organises the event.” But that’s Rs.1.1 lakh, hardly enough for 55 couples. Muzameel Khan’s extended family is very large and includes relatively well-off landowners. They and their close circle — “with no outside collections” — raise another Rs.5,000 per family. So the average cost of each of the weddings is around Rs.7,000. There is, of course, a lot of voluntary labour.

Meanwhile, the costs, pressures and delays mean that the age of marriage is itself moving upwards. “I got married around age 13,” says Gunvanti Raut in Dhotragaon, Amravati. “My daughter wed at 18. Now, the girls are 23 or even older here. People struggle to get them married.” While the changing age of marriage may not be a wholly negative thing, the accompanying distress surely is. Stories of people selling land, gold, cattle and other assets to meet wedding costs are endless. “Even the very poor spend up to or over Rs.1 lakh, mostly by borrowing it,” says Ajees Khan, father of bride Bilkees Anjum at Nandura.

So the government’s mass wedding programme and the initiative of groups like Muzameel Khan’s hold promise. The brides, grooms and parents we spoke to at Nandura agree. “Seeing us,” says Waheeda Begum, “others will follow.”