“My family’s condition is precarious because of a five-year continuous drought.. my marriage was delayed because no private moneylender or bank was ready to give a loan. I am committing suicide to reduce my father’s burden and to end this tradition of expensive marriages”.

Three years back, 21-year-old Sheetal Vayal jumped into a village well in Latur district, leaving behind this suicide note. The girl was worried that her marriage expenses and dowry would leave her father in destitution. She took this step anticipating that like other farmers, her father would end his life under loan burden.

Honey, let’s shrink the wedding for now!

Fortunately, other prospective brides in the region say they don’t have to follow in Sheetal’s footsteps; nor do their fathers need to commit suicide this marriage season — thanks to restrictions imposed by the government to curb Covid-19 spread.

The Maharashtra government has announced curfew-like restrictions on the movement of people in the State till May 1 along with other curbs, including that no person be allowed in a public place without a valid reason and that only 25 people will be allowed at marriages. Even during earlier lockdowns, the government had restricted the number of people attending marriages.

Covid ‘joy’: As city boys struggle for survival, rural Maharashtra girls eye farmers as husbands

“You will see that many girls were married during Covid-19 lockdowns last year. Lavish weddings and big dowry are accepted norms in society and girls’ parents have to shoulder all expenses. The majority of parents take loans to arrange big marriage ceremonies and continue to re-pay the loan for 10-15 years. Covid-19 has shown that marriages could be small and less expensive. I hope government thinks of similar rules for marriages during the normal period,” says Priyanka Bhosale from Latur.

Adding to financial distress

Marathwada and Vidarbha regions top in the list of farmer suicides in Maharashtra. Loans taken for pompous marriages are one of the reasons for farmer suicides. According to the State government, “The prominent reasons noted for farmer suicides are debt, crop failure, inability to repay debt, resulting in pressure from debtors, inability to procure enough money for daughter’s marriage or other religious activities, chronic severe illness, vices like alcohol addiction, gambling, etc”.

Aurangabad-based advocate Swati Nakhate Patil, who started a campaign for simple marriages, observes that their scheme to organise a marriage ceremony at an expense of just ₹210 — costs towards the bride and groom registering the marriage and for exchanging garlands — got a lukewarm response. Swati says that big marriages are a prestige issue in the region and girls’ parents are forced to spend a huge amount on marriage ceremonies and dowry.

Kavita Ingale feels strict laws are needed to prevent big expenses on marriages. “Rich people can afford it. But what about the poor parents? They are under social pressure to marry their sons and daughters in big marriage ceremonies. However, enacting laws alone will not help, society has to change its mindset,” she says.

Hurry to marry off daughters

Activists in Marathwada and Vidarbha region say that farm distress and escalated financial difficulties during Covid-19 have led to an increase in the number of under-age girls being married.

Parents feel that once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, they will have to spend money on marriage ceremonies. This has resulted in a rise in the number of child marriages. Activist Tatvasheel Kamble says that many child marriages were carried out surreptitiously during the lockdown — conducted within households while many in the village remained unaware. “Low-cost” marriages during lockdown helped families who otherwise had to take loans for marriage ceremonies, he says.