In village after village of crisis-hit Vidarbha region you can find many girls aged 25 or more unmarried because their parents can't afford it. This is a major source of tension in the community.

The irony was hard to miss. Political leaders — MPs and MLAs amongst them — lecturing people on the virtues of low-cost marriages. Divthana didn't need the sermon. This village in Buldhana district began its cheap, mass weddings way back in 1983. It has seen hundreds of brides married at very low cost to their families since then. That is, 23 years before the Maharashtra government launched its own mass-wedding programme as part of the Chief Minister's relief package for the Vidarbha region.

“The netas spend crores on the weddings of their own daughters but celebrate our austerity,” scoffs one young villager. Divthana took no funds from government for its mass weddings. It has also convinced its people to have all the marriages in a given year jointly and on the same day. In a region where even the very poor might be forced to spend upwards of a lakh on getting a daughter married, this means a great deal. The cheap wedding practice has come from the dominant Rajput community that makes up most of the village. Which seems to give it a stamp of legitimacy, making it easier for more deprived groups around here to accept simple weddings.

“The normal wedding involves too many costs, too many feasts, too many guests,” says Vishnu Ingle of Divthana. A stringer for major Marathi dailies like Lokmat and Sakal, Mr. Ingle's reports on the subject have helped make this village famous in the region “Today 15 of our girls will get married and none of their families will pay more than Rs.7,000 for it,” he says, proudly. He hands us the cheaply-printed joint invitation Divthana has put out for the event.

Weddings have been an explosive issue in the region for some years now. Rising costs and dowry pressures have added to the ruin of many in six Vidarbha districts already battered by a decade-long agrarian crisis. Failure to get their daughters married has been cited as a factor in the suicides of some farmers and it is a major source of debt and stress for most. As early as 2006, this journal had reported the Maharashtra government's finding on the subject. “Well over three lakh families had daughters whose marriages they could not arrange due to the financial crisis they faced. One in every nine showed interest in the mass marriage scheme of the Government.” (The Hindu, November 22, 2006). That crisis has worsened a lot since then. In villages across the region, you can find many girls 25 years or older, unmarried because their parents can't afford it.

So Divthana becomes important. “We prefer it this way,” says Kalpana, one of the village's young brides in the most recent mass wedding. Her father, Rathor Singh Ingle agrees. “This is sensible and not wasteful.” Other brides, their parents and even the bridegrooms we spoke to were for it. But what if better-off elements want to have their own, more upscale weddings? “I was one of those,” says Prabhakar Ingle who holds a steady job at a private hospital. “But friends in the village talked me out of the idea. I'm quite happy I did it this way.” People around him are quick to point out that bridegrooms from other villages are also accepting it. “Or how would we get our daughters married?” they ask.

An apolitical event

The organiser of the wedding we are attending is the Hanuman Sansthan. This organisation has at least ten committees with over a hundred members to run the annual wedding day of the village. These include a ‘dal committee' and a ‘water committee'. The event after all, is a public one and draws many guests. “What the girls' families contribute works out to no more than Rs.7,000,” say Sansthan officials. “The rest is voluntary labour and help from villagers.” The village has different political trends within, say Sansthan president Mansinh More and Divthana sarpanch Bhagwanji More. “But the Sansthan and the whole village act as one on social issues like the mass weddings. We see these as above politics.” At least a dozen neighbouring villages now follow Divthana's example.

And to this point, it's quite admirable. Success has many fathers, though. They're showing up in the form of more and more political bigwigs attending the mass weddings to harangue the gathering on simplicity. Local leaders can't afford not to be seen at them. As one activist put it: “Political leaders engaging with the process is not a bad thing. This way the example reaches more people and gains legitimacy.” The problem is when the process itself gets politicised — and hijacked. A fate that threatens Divthana's great effort.

The math, for instance, no longer adds up. It is quite true that the families of the brides pay only a fraction of what they would if they held separate weddings. They avoid debt and possible bankruptcy as a result. However, as the annual wedding day event gains greater success, it is costing a lot more than it should. Some 15,000 people are at this wedding — many here because the political leaders are — and all of them were to be fed as guests. Divthana is spending a lot of money on its cheap weddings. To the point where it threatens to gut a fine example of simple living and joint effort. The poor families did not pay for the huge public event, but somebody did. Maybe rich political leaders. The idea of a village community taking charge of itself suffers. It also opens up a new chain of patronage. And converts somebody's wedding into a political event.

The importance of Divthana's example can be seen in the suffering of many in other villages in this wedding season. Like struggling farmer Shekar Badre in Amravati who took his own life soon after learning his family had to raise Rs.1 lakh for his sister's wedding. Or of Bhagwan Hanate in Akola, who spent a fortune marrying off his first three daughters. “The wedding of my fourth daughter — I have five — broke down just days before the event. I simply could raise no more money to meet the demands of the other side.” Sometimes, unmarried daughters of farmers who have committed suicide have taken their own lives — blaming themselves for their fathers' deaths.

In a region ravaged by an ongoing agrarian crisis, costly weddings are sometimes the last straw. Divthana shows a way out of this. That is, if it does not become a victim of its own success.