A boy is selling himself and the bride’s father is willing to pay — isn’t this what the market’s about?

Image courtesy South Asian Women’s Forum

Sunanda K Datta Ray makes this point in his article in Business Standard The big deal about dowry. Or read it in the extended entry.

This is an argument that I frequently encounter. “Look voluntary buying and selling is happening. Isn’t this the market?” This is when I think it is time to revisit property rights.

A desirable market is one where the buyer and seller have property rights over the commodities of exchange and the exchange performed thereafter is voluntary. An example. A loves B, because B has desirable attributes. A persuades B to love in return. What follows is a voluntary agreement on the nature of the relationship and the exchange/ demarcation of concomitant responsibilites.

A dowry marriage treads murky ground. It is not a voluntary exchange of property rights holders. A loves B but B’s daddy, let us call him D, enters the picture. A is of marriageable age but D decides the terms. In that sense it is not a true market exchange. Or to complicate the matter futher, A’s daddy and B’s daddy decide the terms.

One reason I can hypothesize that dowry must have become popular is because of a property rights background. In earlier times, property could only be guarded by men. Women were unable to take care of their property because of their inability to command physical security of the property when needed. This must have led to the “daddy” handing over his daughter’s share to the “chosen” man (and presumably to the wife) indirectly. It will be interesting to look at the nature of dowry in recent Indian history. These would have very interesting lessons for a to-be-liberalised Indian economy.

When it was the scarcity economy items like scooter and fridge would have flourished. When you were unsure about the value of your money, gold dowry would have been rampant. When real estate was valuable because of regulatory controls, the amount of property mattered. When only power/ influence could get your work done, then power linkages mattered. When only a few people could get access to urban facility, their Dowry Qoutient (DQ) went up. If you have an income-translatable education or a place in the “land of dreams” then your DQ went up.

Pardon my narrow scope of experience and intellect, but I see the future of dowry as this.
An economy which offers opportunies for “pursuit of life, liberty and happiness” or, let us say, amassing wealth will translate into less pressure on parents to seek a wealthy groom or give into demands for dowry.
An environment which allows greater economic independence for women and a rule of law that allows them to amass wealth (today, wealth is either in your mind and/or in your card…these cannot be taken away by force as could have been possible in recent times) and choice of groom in their hands (which is already a trend) will change the nature of dowry.
It will only change the nature of dowry because D would no longer be an important part of the marriage equation. A and B will have to check for this part (wealth-worthiness) themselves and then agree upon voluntarily, albeit with D’s advice. Today what happens is the arrangement is between A’s dad and B’s dad. Here the property rights holders and the investors in the marriage are A and B. So the exchange between A (the groom) and D (the bride’s dad) is not a true market exchange. This is not what markets is about! Markets without property rights holders will only result in exploitation.

Thinking of a fantastic legislation and an idealistic implementation will not end the problem, for it will only succeed in pushing the dowry market underground.

Here the example is more akin to the state deciding our choices and then have us to live with those choices. This is the reason for the great landline telephone debacle! Now read about that in Sunanda K Datta Ray’s article Land lines still signify privilege


Post Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.

Previous articleCorruption as a symptom and not a cause!
Next articleRight Act, Wrong Tack
Naveen Mandava

Naveen is Co-Founder at XamCheck, an organization that partners with schools, supporting them in processes they follow, with learning materials and processes that are all crafted to work together as an interconnected system to drive learning. He is a Doctoral Fellow from RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, United States of America. He has worked extensively on assessment based decision support for governments, non-profit organizations and schools chains in India and the USA for over 10 years. He has been a Lead Consultant with the World Bank’s Innovations for Poverty Action Consortium, a Policy Analyst with RAND Corporation and a Research Manager at Centre for Civil Society.