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The Freakonomics Of The Indian Marriage Market

13/09/2016 5:08 PM IST | Updated 15/09/2016 10:23 AM IST
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Jane Schreibman

The practice of taking dowry has long been declared a criminal offence. Yet, it shows no signs of abating, with the bride's side continuing to bestow it in the form of cash, gold, luxury cars, apartments and so on to the groom's eager family. Why is this, I've found myself wondering. Is there any economics behind it? Is dowry like a scarcity rent? Does the relative bargaining position of women vis-à-vis men affect a woman's ability to find her preferred match? Is marriage really a market?

While a well-paid male engineer may have no qualms about marrying a non-working woman, a to-be bride will rarely pick a man who earns less than her.

In India's hypergamous society, wherein arranged marriages remain the preference, a typical woman seeks to marry a man who's higher than her in socio-economic status. For example, if a girl is an engineer from one of the NITs, she (or her family) might be set on a match with a man who has a degree from one of the IITs (or something else suitably prestigious) and earns more than her. Thus, her choices would be something like the following:

• Tech from IIT

• Tech from NIT + MBA from a good b-school

• And in both the cases, the groom should earn more than the bride.

Many people think that with better access to education, women will start working and be empowered. That, they surmise, will improve women's status and the practice of dowry will die a natural death. However, that's not what seems to be happening.

Certainly, we are seeing some cosmetic changes in the way that the exchange is carried out, but the core of the matter is the same. Today, extraction in kind has generally replaced cold, hard cash and the dowry-seekers are less blatant in their demands, often adopting a veneer of political correctness. They will say things like, "We're educated so we don't believe in taking dowry for our son but you can give your daughter whatever you want. Who're we to object? Otherwise, we're okay if you send you daughter in just one set of clothing." Yet, the weight of expectations is the elephant in the room.

The brides' parents can read between the lines. They know very well that if their daughter is sent without cash, gold or car... depending upon their socio-economic condition, the in-laws will torment their daughter in some way or the other, even if it's only through acerbic remarks. Besides, a majority of such parents also have similar expectations when it's time to marry their own sons so it's all par for the course for them.

Women have a relatively smaller pool of eligible matches (compared to men) to choose from in India's matrimonial market.

And of course, what also doesn't need explicit spelling out is that the bride's family will pay for the wedding, which thanks to the influence of Bollywood is usually a lavish affair involving designer clothing, copious amounts of jewellery and to top it all off a honeymoon abroad for the new couple.

Law or no law, most people (rich or poor) do believe that taking or giving dowry is normal. This has become so common an expectation that even politicians have started promising a minimum quantity of gold (for brides) to woo women voters.

So, back to my original question. Is there any economics behind the continuing practice of dowry?

With more girls than ever before now educated and working, there is a growing demand for well-educated and well-paid boys who meet all the necessary parameters of education, income and status. While a highly educated and well-paid male engineer may have no qualms about marrying a teacher or a non-working woman, a to-be bride will rarely pick a man who is not as qualified as her or who earns less than her. To sum up, women have a relatively smaller pool of eligible matches (compared to men) to choose from in India's matrimonial market.

Caste, community, language, region and food habits also come into play. While these factors affect the groom's decision as well, they tend to matter more to the bride's side. For instance, a boy may be allowed to marry outside his caste if the woman is "suitable" in other ways, but his sister may not have the same freedom. This further tilts the demand equation in favour of men.

A boy may be allowed to marry outside his caste if the woman is "suitable" in other ways, but his sister may not have the same freedom.

Hence, grooms or their families have relatively better bargaining powers. As a result, they expect (and often extract) some kind of premium or scarcity rent even if they don't ask for it directly. This premium may take different and varied forms – an excessively generous "loan", a piece of land, a car or even a very beautiful bride for a less-than-average-looking man.

So, what happens if the bride's family is not ready to pay the premium?

Well-educated and well-paid women don't consider themselves inferior to well-educated and well-paid men, and rightly so. What if they refuse to entertain any suggestion of dowry, explicit or implied?

The "system" is rigged in such a way that women who assert themselves this way often end up waiting longer to get married. Others end up lowering their standards or, in some cases, abandon the idea of marriage altogether.

Many women, these days, also postpone marriage to advance their career. That further puts them at a disadvantage as women above 30 are not preferred for marriage because there's a perception that they will be more likely to suffer complications in pregnancy. It plays into the typical Indian risk-avoidance attitude – "Why take a chance?" The age factor also works against women's interest by eroding their bargaining power in India's ruthless matrimonial market.

Grooms or their families have relatively better bargaining powers. As a result, they expect (and often extract) some kind of premium or scarcity rent.

To deal with this, some women or their parents do lie about age (as well as complexion and height) in matrimonial ads saying that they are younger, fairer and taller than they actually are i.e. 30 instead of 34, 5'4" instead of 5'2" and milky white instead of "wheatish" in complexion. However, it's tough to pull off this kind of sleight of hand in the age of Facebook and Google.

Ultimately, ambitious women by pursuing careers and bettering their career prospects may hurt their bargaining power while seeking a matrimonial alliance. While I certainly do not think this is how it should be, it's the reality today.

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