Indians Click to Say ‘I Do’

Neha Kapur, 30, is a type 1 diabetic and that fact alone made it tough to find a marriage partner. For three years, Kapur’s parents searched to no avail for a prospective groom willing to risk a life with their only daughter. But finally the family was directed to diabeticmatrimony.com, a Web site that helped the Kapurs access a databank of eligible diabetic Indian bachelors around the world. Within two months, Kapur whittled down her choice to a London-based software designer to whom she is now happily married.

Unlike the days when an elderly aunt might be called in to solve such problems by using family networks, 9.5 million Indians are doing what Neha did and scouting for spouses in cyberspace this year, up from 5.5 million in 2006, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India. The figures are hardly surprising considering that India already hosts the fourth largest Internet population in the world – expected to reach 120 million users this year.

Newly affluent, impatient, tech-savvy – and young, this is a lucrative demographic, and one that India’s online matrimonial portals have found eager for their services. Beginning around the turn of the century, the services have been multiplying, with as many as 100 in operation by now, according to the industry. They range from thirtyplusshaadi.com, aimed at older Indians living abroad, to idontwantdowry.com, which says it is for “young guns of India that oppose the dowry system.” The site Shaadi.com claims to be “the world’s largest matrimonial service” and to have helped to hook up more than 800,000 couples. It is clear that on-line shaadi, which means matrimonial in Hindi, is a big thing.

“The biggest reason for the success and growth of Indian wedding portals,” says Jai Raj Gupta, the CEO of Shaadionline.com, one of the first entrepreneurs to enter the market in 2000, “is the convenience, choice and cost-effectiveness they offer. At under US$30, a customer can upload his profile and access a database of millions of candidates worldwide for three months. Plus it’s all confidential. It’s a win-win situation.”

Of course the trend is also reflective of the deeper changes taking place in the Indian cultural landscape as young people increasingly abandon traditional arranged marriages. Also, as extended families break up into smaller nuclear units, live-in aunts, uncles and grandmothers may not be there any longer to play matchmaker. This has also reduced family dependence on Hindu priests who once arranged sit-down matrimonial negotiations between families.

Also driving this trend are the 25 million non-resident Indians, or NRIs, as they are called living across the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East. For them, the Web is a viable and economical way to find a potential Indian mate at a time when marrying a non-Indian is still relatively rare. For this well-to-do, global audience such websites are a fuss-free way to finding a match.

For instance, Washington, DC-based Pankaj Peerbhoy, 58, got his daughter married through an Indian matrimonial portal last year. He says the service was helpful because he preferred a groom from his own ethnic community but also wanted to canvass the best candidates around the world in a search of someone pleasing to both father and daughter. “We tried the local boys first,” says Peerbhoy, “but it didn’t work out because all of them were from the business community, while my daughter was keen on a professional from the travel trade. And that’s specifically the kind of groom we managed to zero in on through a wedding site.”

Among the top players, Shaadionline.com and Jeevansaathi.com are typical – user-driven services that offer both free and paid subscriptions for various kinds of services, with fees that range from $10 to $15. As with other dating sites, the business model involves subscribers tapping into a database to scan attractive profiles of prospective brides and grooms at fixed rates. Some content is available free of cost to visitors but to establish contact with that future special someone, the user has to pay.

With India hosting the world’s largest youth population – nearly 70 percent of the 1.1 billion Indians are below 30 years old – the potential seems unlimited and the entry costs low,” says Jaipur-based Prakash Dwivedi, a management graduate who will soon be launching a marriage site called Vivaah. “The risk is also comparatively low in this business because if the marriage theme doesn’t work, you can always use the site to sell something else.”

Bandbaja.com's co-founder and CEO, Vibhas Mittal, estimates the size of India's total matrimony industry at over $20 billion. Just the matchmaking component – apart from the often wildly lavish wedding, gifts, and parties – he says is about $300 million. It is common for a bride’s middle-class family to spend $15,000-20,000 on a wedding – four times India's annual per capita GDP. Collectively, all this spells a great business opportunity and some of the sites are now also offering event management services, travel advice and visa assistance for those traveling back home for the nuptials.

According to a study by the Internet and Online Association, the market size of Indian online matrimonials will reach about $20 million in 2007-08, more then three times what it was four years ago. Buoyed by this growth, many players are searching for narrower slices of the field – targeting specific religions or ailments, like diabetes.

There is a site for singles with HIV-AIDS, for example. Anil Kumar Valive, who founded positivesaathi.com seven months ago, says such websites are needed as they guarantee anonymity to people who find it tough to search for a mate. Similarly, diabeticmatrimony.com, founded by the Delhi Diabetes Research Centre, has 294 profiles in its database.

As the online population grows exponentially it seems that an increasing number of love stories will sprout in cyberspace. The telecom ministry, which had declared 2007 as the Year of Broadband, expects 20 million additional broadband connections by 2010. Huge investments are being made by local service providers to upgrade the broadband infrastructure.

Experts also forecast India's internet advertising revenue to jump by nearly 50 per cent by 2010 to 7.5 billion rupees, against a global growth of 20 per cent in the same period. "From the Internet advertising market point of view, the growth rates are huge and the main drivers are classifieds for matrimonials, real estate and jobs,” says Gupta of Shaadionline.com.

With the growth and enhanced visibility, international investors are walking down the cyber aisle with Indian partners. For instance, Yahoo and Canaan Partners invested $8.65 million in BharatMatrimony.com two years ago. According to Murugavel Janakiraman, the BharatMatrimony hopes the partnership will help it retain its claim of top position in the Indian market while scaling up its infrastructure and marketing punch.

And if that first go-around doesn’t work out and ends in divorce, you can always try SecondShaadi.com, which bills itself as “the No. 1 site for Indians looking for a second marriage.” Matchmaking has never been so easy.