Maharashtra's Home Minister, Mr. R.R. Patil, has decided to have a go at the "dowry menace". One can only wish him luck. This well-intentioned gentleman, better known for his ban on dance bars in Mumbai, is convinced that the problem can be solved if committees are appointed to guarantee the implementation of the numerous laws relating to dowry, the giving and taking of which is illegal.

Mr. Patil is consulting various women's groups, individuals and the police in the State to see how his plan can be implemented. As with all good politicians, the first thing he has done is to set up a three-tier Dowry Prohibition Committee headed by him. If committees and laws could have solved social problems, India would have become a paradise on earth long ago.

But cynicism about the efficacy of such committees apart, it is good that someone has drawn attention to dowry once again. It had slipped into the background. Given the lack of any news about dowry deaths, dowry violence or dowry demands — barring the occasional story of a brave girl who refused to give in — one would have thought that the problem had disappeared.

Taking new forms

We know for a fact that it has not. Far from it. In fact, it has become far more entrenched and taken new forms. The trouble with Mr. Patil's plan is that he is still working on the premise that all dowry giving and taking is done through the more obvious forms of "gifts" — jewellery, clothes, furniture, white goods, vehicles and homes. So, he proposes that alongside the compulsory registration of marriages, all gifts given to the bride should also be registered at the local police station. He believes that local committees headed by women sarpanches or women heading self-help groups in villages will act as "watchdogs" and ensure that the police is alert and does register such gifts.

Customs like dowry can end only when young men and women decide to go against the tide.

 •  A murderous arithmetic
 •  Legislation destined to fail Even if this works in some rural areas, the majority of dowry-related cases occur in middle class areas of our big and small cities. Even in the late 1970s, when the first instances of women being tortured and killed for dowry came to light, the problem was located in the middle class in north India. The economy then was far more restricted, bank finance for consumables was not available and the only way you could own something was if you had the ready money to pay for it. For families with boys, the best route to obtaining such capital goods was to demand a large dowry.

Since then, a great deal has changed in India. With the growth in the consumer economy, easy finance allows even salaried individuals to own things their parents could never have dreamed of possessing. At the same time, dowry demands have not diminished. The phenomenon has spread far beyond north India and has infected practically all communities.

What has changed from the 1970s is the kind of demands being made on the bride's parents. Apart from "gifts" that are nothing short of extortion, the demands now involve the kind of wedding that will take place. Has anyone noticed how similar weddings are becoming all over India? There is a kind of pan-Indian wedding that is emerging that is dominated by the north Indian Punjabi style of celebration. Thus sangeet and mehndi are now a must at every wedding. Ostentation is in, regardless of what you can afford. You don't have to be a Mittal or a Chatwal to imagine that you are a prince or princess for that one day. Wedding organisers have everything ready from faux palaces to exotic locations. And ostensibly sensible young people are agreeing to these tamashas in the belief that there is nothing wrong with "living it up" for that one day.

Weddings ought to be fun, especially for the couple getting married. But at what cost? Who pays the bills for these grand weddings? Inevitably, it is the girl's family, who are duty bound to maintain appearances and beg or borrow to pay for the festivities. The gifts come on top of all this expense.

Laws don't really help

And none of this ensures that the girl is loved or safe in the marital home. In fact, if one traced the districts where dowry demands are strongest, one would probably note a low female child sex ratio. For wherever a girl is seen as a burden because of dowry, female children are being prevented from being born. If all these years of campaigning against dowry, or enacting laws that prohibit it, had made a difference in people's attitudes towards girls, we would not have seen the drastic decline in the female child sex ratio in the more prosperous districts of the country.

Dowry is a symptom of a deeper disease that relates to how our society values women. The original concept of streedhan was based on providing a newly wed girl with some things that she could cherish and call her own. Today this concept has been vulgarised to symbolise all the things that not even the bridegroom, but his family want to have as their own.

Customs like dowry can end only when the people involved, the young men and women, decide to go against the tide, demand simpler weddings and say a firm "no" to the vulgar demands that constitute a dowry. Marriages may not be made in heaven, but they should not end up sending people into the hellhole of lifelong debt and misery.