Jingle Of Gold In Wedding Bells

Great Kerala Dowry Bazar

The great Kerala dowry bazaar sends gold prices soaring, and turns marriage into a very hard bargain for women. KA SHAJI reports

IN KERALA, marriage is worth its weight in gold. On January 20 this year, though, a bridegroom-to-be’s happy hopes of a windfall met with a rude shock. In a small village near Kollam, 26-year-old Sreekala walked away from the marriage venue, and later filed a case, when the groom’s family insisted that the entire dowry including 100 sovereigns of gold be paid before the knot was tied. Despite several social reform movements and decades of “revolutionary” Left rule, Kerala remains plagued by dowry.

It’s amidst this widespread sense of humiliation among the state’s women that the Class X-educated Sreekala has quickly grown to be an icon of self-respect. Though the groom’s family later adopted a more conciliatory stance, Sreekala refused to withdraw her complaint under the Dowry Prohibition Act. A week later, on January 27, her cousin Ramesh married her in a ceremony that saw hundreds of cheering attendees from across the district. Sreekala’s example was soon taken up in Thrissur district by Flitty, a junior scientist with a research institute in Bangalore. She called off her marriage just a week ahead of it because the groom’s family demanded Rs 6 lakh deposited in the bank and the receipt be produced before them, apart from 136 sovereigns of gold. But such acts of courage are few and far between in a state where the craze for gold in dowry has sent bullion rates soaring.

The price of 10 grams of gold crossed Rs 10,000 recently. The steep rise not only led to a slump in gold sales, it multiplied the woes of thousands of families at the time of the traditional marriage season for the state’s Christians, Nairs, Ezhavas and Muslims. “Just four years ago, the price of a gold sovereign (weighing eight grams) was Rs 3,000. An ordinary lower class marriage in Kerala involves a minimum of 10 sovereigns in dowry. But a very large number of families would have promised 100 to 300 sovereigns,’’ says K. Jayaram, a Kozhikode-based social worker. Agrees women’s activist K. Ajitha: “Gold has been an inevitable part of weddings in Kerala. Apart from the ceremonial thaali (a leafshaped gold plate), gold is offered by several communities as the main part of the dowry. Also, gold is the major status symbol in the state, and the bridegroom’s family extracts the maximum ornaments at the time of marriage.’’

NO WONDER Kerala accounts for 15 to 20 percent of gold sales in the country although the share of the state’s population is only 3.1 percent. S. Abdul Nazar, spokesperson of the All-Kerala Gold and Silver Merchants Association, says online trade in gold has been one of the main reasons behind the rising rates. Within the last one-and-a half months, the price of a sovereign climbed to Rs 9,960 from Rs 7,200. Writer and social activist Sarah Joseph says marriages are seen as an opportunity to enhance a family’s financial and social standing. Families are increasingly seeking help of professional “marriage consultancy bureaus” to negotiate the dowry. Air-conditioned marriage halls are mushrooming even in rural areas, as are jewellery and bridal wear shops.

In recent years, such businesses have become the biggest advertisers in the state’s print and electronic media. Brand new cars, white goods and even “pocket money” for the honeymoon have become an integral part of wedding transactions. Statistics bring out the pattern in relief. In 1993, Kerala registered 380 complaints of cruelty by husbands and in-laws in the name of dowry. In 2002, the figure rose to 2,774, and is now close to 4,000. Father Paul Thelakakttu, a spokesperson of the Roman Catholic Church, puts it succinctly: “These are present-day Shylocks, greedy for the last pound of flesh.” Perhaps what Kerala needs is
more Portias.

Hammered By The Sickle

Rice cultivation in Kuttanad

The CPM’s anachronisms reach a frightening level: rice farmers are starving because the party says, ‘no machines’. KA SHAJI reports

THE CPM’S time-warped ideas are reaping a bloody harvest for Kerala’s rice farmers. The party’s peasants’ unions have been boycotting machines for years, insisting that the sickle is revolutionary both as tool and idea. Ask local Congress leader and rice farmer Shaji Cherukad, and he’ll tell you that raising a banner of revolt in the Red bastion of Alappuzha is a recipe for starvation. Cherukad lent his fields for a “symbolic” protest by Congress leaders against the CPM unions’ refusal to allow farmers the use of cutting and threshing machines.

The Congress’ state leadership turned up in full strength to deploy a giant harvesting machine on Cherukad’s farm in the Kuttanad region, and offered the gathered mediapersons some defiant bytes. But no sooner had the ceremonies ended that Cherukad’s woes began. Those in charge of operating the machine fled fearing the CPM’s wrath, and the farm workers avenged this assault on peasants’ unity by boycotting Cherukad’s farm. Twenty days after the harvest date, the crop lies uncut and rotting. What makes the situation bizarre in the Alappuzha-Kuttanad region, once called Kerala’s rice bowl, is that the embargo on machines has meant a severe shortage of farm hands.

At Thengara, a 69-year-old farmer died on March 27 while cutting the crop. TG Govinda Pillai died after he had been forced to reap the crop himself after weeks of vain search for labourers. The comrades are now seeking to overcome this obstacle with an elaborate plan whereby farm workers will have to take turns to work in the fields from next year. “Each worker should sow and reap at the time specified for him. This will ensure that enough workers are available and farmers wouldn’t need to come to us asking to be allowed to hire machines,” says CK Bodhanandan, leader of the Travancore Karshaka Thozhilali Union (TKTU).

Both production and acreage of rice have been plummeting over the years. The state depends on its neighbours for about 80 percent of its requirement. Also, the fact that harvesting takes a long time, increases the crops’ vulnerability to summer rains. Over 1,500 hectares of paddy was submerged in the rains in the belowsea level Kuttanad this year. Another moderateto- strong shower could wipe out a crop worth over Rs 30 crore in almost 7,000 hectares .

FARM LABOUR makes up the bulk of the CPM cadre in the region. The TKTU fixes the farm wage and considers applications for permission to use a machine. But even this is a big change. Five years ago, the union had enforced a blanket ban on machines in over a lakh hectares. Today, not a single farmer owns a harvesting machine. Some hire machines from Tamil Nadu. While the strong unionisation of farm labour has regularly hiked wages, it has also forced many farmers to shift to cash crops.

Not even Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s campaign some years ago here, in which party workers chopped down cash crops, has helped. The TKTU’s leaders extract a nokkukooli (payment for watching work being done) for every harvesting machine allowed into a farm. Though the union denies the levy, not everyone’s amused. It takes 10 or more workers a full day’s effort to harvest an acre of paddy; a single machine can do the job in less than an hour. The CPM’s intransigence has left the region on the brink of famine. “I could have saved at least 90 percent of my crop if I had a machine. The harvesting would have been over in the first week of March itself, before the rains that destroyed my crop this year,” laments Samuel Kunju, another farmer. “I had taken a loan of Rs 1,75,000. How am I going to repay it? Maybe I should ask the union.”