Black Money and the Half Brides of Uttar Pradesh


Black Money and the Half Brides of Uttar Pradesh

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The Singhs* were gathered around the living room of their Ghaziabad house, on their fourth round of chai that evening. A happy tension was rippling through the family. Long-distance aunts and sisters fussed over the trousseau of the Singhs’ only daughter Neetu, who tiptoed around the room coyly. Neetu was nervous with excitement; her wedding had been fixed a couple of months ago after several failed attempts over the years.

After all, alliances are not easy for a 31-year-old woman with no professional prospects. She is considered well past her sell-by date. So when the Chaudhary family agreed to the wedding – albeit dependent on the exchange of a hefty dowry that ran into lakhs – Neetu swallowed her pride and decided to go with the flow. The groom was a good-looking fella and had a well-paying job. Mr and Mrs Singh were happy – a big load had been taken off their minds. That night, Neetu watched her father heave a sigh of relief as he cut a last-minute deal with the tentwallah over the phone.

It was the night of November 8, 2016 and it was not yet 8 pm.

Time stopped for the Singh family of Ghaziabad as it did for millions of others all across India, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi went live on national TV and suddenly declared that ₹500 and ₹1000 notes would no longer be legal tender from the midnight of November 8. The move was widely hailed as a “surgical strike” on black money hoarders across the country. But for people like the elder Mr Singh, a small-time dealer in construction material like bricks, crushed stones, and cement – people who form the nuts and bolts of India’s rural and urban cash economy – this was a lightning strike that burnt their house to the ground.

The wedding was due in another two weeks. When it had been time to select a suitable date two months ago, the families had settled on November 21 as it was one of the few auspicious dates available for the next two months. The preparations were nearly done: the caterer had been engaged, the invitations to friends and relatives had been sent out, the band had been finalised, hotel rooms for guests booked, the jewellery had nearly been bought. Singh had spent most of the savings he had been making since the time his little girl was born – except for the ₹35 lakh that he had lying in bundles of cash, which was the agreed-upon dowry. All of these bundles had suddenly turned into worthless pieces of paper, less valuable than the sacks that they were stored in.

Singh sat on mounds of ₹500 and ₹1000 cash, head in his hands, panic in his heart, and not a single idea if the groom’s family would finally go through with the wedding.

Of course, the government had given time and delineated steps to recover the money, but that would take time and several questions would have to be answered. How were they going to convert such a huge amount of cash into “white” in such a short while? Uttar Pradesh is largely a cash economy, mainly because of poor enforcement of tax laws and no confidence in the banking system. In a state where 38 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and the per capita income is half of India’s average of ₹33,000, people prefer to stock cash at home and make all payments in liquid money.

Singh sat on mounds of ₹500 and ₹1000 cash, head in his hands, panic in his heart, and not a single idea if the groom’s family would finally go through with the wedding. It’s not like the Chaudharys would accept the dowry in cheques.

The Singh family is only one among several in Uttar Pradesh, who have been left in a lurch. Across most of northern India, marriages are grand affairs and for families that have daughters, they are a matter of pride. The bigger and lavisher the wedding, the easier it is to get the neighbours to hold their tongues. November is when the auspicious wedding season kicks off, when the air has a bit of a nip and redolent with the smell of ceremonial gunfire. A standard wedding in the state costs no less than ₹20 lakh.

A significant part of this number is the bride’s dowry, the exchange of which continues unabated in the state. A cursory look at government data shows us that in the last five years alone, the state has reported more than 40,000 dowry deaths. Most parents, though, brush off the cash as ceremonial “neg” or “shagun” that traditionally accompanies a married daughter.

They were a significant casualty of the demonetisation drive. When a government policy comes face to face with a time-honoured “tradition”, who emerges winner? Can centuries of tradition change overnight to accommodate the new change in thinking? Millions of fathers of unfortunate brides who had only one goal in their lives – to see their daughters married off – were heartbroken by the sudden change in narrative.  They’ve been held ransom to the idea of dowry ever since the day the birth of their daughter was announced. And now even after paying the ransom with their life savings, many of their daughters remain unmarried – a fate worse than death for many in this dusty outpost of north-western Uttar Pradesh.

After the demonetisation announcement, the Singhs considered all kinds of options. That of exchanging money, taking cash on loan with heavy interest, of begging the groom’s parents for an extension of the dowry but none of them were viable. Staring at them in the face was the indefinite postponement of the wedding until the dowry had once again been raised in the brand new 2000-rupee notes. Raising the first round took them a lifetime. Who knows how long the second round will take?

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the respondents.