India's Families Still Spend to say "I Do"

India is in the swing of its busy marriage season, which lasts from November to March, and the Big Fat Indian Wedding hasn’t gone away, global financial meltdown, fears of job losses, new suspicions about real incomes of Indian bachelors abroad or the massacre in Mumbai.

In 2004, India’s wedding industry was estimated at Rs500 billion. In 2007, it had burgeoned to Rs1.25 trillion, with annual growth of 25 percent expected this year, downturn or no downturn.

The wedding game beats the economic odds in India because parents are known to plan matrimonial expenditures years in advance to buffer unlikely losses, as has happened, for example, in the melting stock markets. With the auspicious months for matrimony underway, Indian marriage-linked business activities from jewelry makers to airlines to hotels to caterers to banquet hall and farmhouse owners to florists are hoping for some cheer, despite the spreading economic disaster.

It is rare to find an Indian wedding sans extravagance no matter where the couple is in India’s complicated social strata. For the impoverished, the bride’s father usually begins saving for her marriage from the time of birth. Even if the grooms are now being chosen more carefully, given the overnight sinking of jobs and companies, it is unlikely to cause significant delays in the weddings actually happening, given resilient ``arranged marriage’’ traditions that are still followed by the majority.

Indications are that couples and parents are opting for the conservative selection method of ``arranged marriage’’ to ensure stability in the wake of lost money and pink slips floating about. Arranged marriages have attracted many adherents across South Asia, with their appeal of a long-term innings, better compatibility, clear financial assessments, carried out under close familial and social guidance and scrutiny.

While the girl’s parents focus on securing of a better and stable financial and social future, the boy’s side is concerned with the consolidation of family property, parental control, strengthening of kinship group, preservation of ancestral lineage. Needless to say the latter also look to the bride’s side for goodies via an increasingly refined and unstated dowry system to prevent any legal hassles. Detective agencies as well as online profiles, including in social networking sites such as Face book or MySpace are monitored to track antecedents.

The older generation, usually the last to adopt the latest technology, has swung into the Internet with alacrity when it relates to matters of marriage of their wards. Indeed, India’s ‘seasonal’ marriage bazaar is only getting bigger and fatter. It is also the annual occasion for the most nightmarish traffic snarls even as thousands of ceremonies are held on the appointed auspicious day that is common for everybody.

North India is estimated to be the biggest market for the wedding industry, followed by Mumbai and Kolkata. But innumerable marriage exhibitions are being held across the entire country to showcase prospective wedding venues, locales, outfits, jewelry, cosmetics and trousseau, honeymoon destinations, theme planners and wedding coordinators.

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Today India’s growing elite prefer luxurious weddings without the organizational hassles that have resulted in the mushrooming of marriage arrangers who offer wedding-centric goods and services under one roof. Favorite designers are still being flown in from Pakistan or Europe, with the bride’s wedding trousseau alone costing millions of rupees.

Marriage exhibition organizers such as Vivaha say that the trend is to host weddings at exotic foreign locations such as Sunway Lagoon and the Palace of the Golden Horses in Malaysia, which entails flying out 250-350 people for the nuptials.

Weddings of the rich and elite are more than the union of man and woman; often it’s the coming together of two families or even businesses. So, the celebrations become an opportunity to flaunt fortunes and power. For instance, in 2004, the head the real estate and finance conglomerate Sahara India, Subrata Roy, flew 10,000 guests aboard 25 planes to his company headquarters in Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh, to celebrate the nearly US$150 million wedding extravaganza of both his sons.

Steel baron Laxmi Mittal is now equally well known for the millions he loosened to celebrate his daughter’s marriage, still considered the most expensive wedding in the world.

It isn’t as if the downturn is being entirely ignored. As J S Sharma, retired bureaucrat and father of a prospective bride put it: “There is increasing insecurity about grooms’ financial prospects today -- the hottest categories of boys, software professionals, MBAs in top multinationals and the non-resident Indians have taken a hit -- due to news of lay-offs and salary cuts.”

Indeed. Recently the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) warned that India Inc may be forced to cut workforce by a 25 percent as companies struggle to sustain operations in the global conflagration. Assocham said the layoffs would be in seven key industrial segments: steel, cement, IT-enabled services/BPO, financial and brokerage services, construction, real estate and aviation.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently set up a high-level panel to monitor the impact of the global financial crisis on domestic industry, saying the downturn was expected to be more ``severe and prolonged’’ than previously thought.

The software industry body NAASCOM has said that hiring in IT and IT enabled services is likely to dip to 200,000 this fiscal year (compared to nearly 300,000 last), while salary hike would be lower by 2.5 percent next year although salaries are still growing at a 9 percent average this year, down from 13.5 percent. But they are expected to dip a further to 7.5 percent this year, the association reported.

Since the US subprime crisis and the housing bubble burst, exports to America, on which India’s software sector relies heavily, have dipped drastically. Uneasiness prevails among the 1.5 million employees of outsourcing centers due to impending job cuts. In this context in the marriage mart, the pedigree of the boy in terms of professional degree from a reputed institute and the family background becomes important.

There is a noticeable uptrend in demand for those in government jobs, given the security of tenure. Till about a decade back young boys belonging to the vaunted federal government services commanded the highest dowries, (obeisance money/gifts paid by the girls family to the boys’) until private sector salaries skyrocketed and boys holding white collar jobs in MNCs became the most desired. So as governments across the world become increasingly involved in managing sinking economies, India’s single bureaucrats are the most desired bridegrooms again.

(Priyanka Bhardwaj is a New Delhi-based journalist. She can be reached at priyanka2508@yahoo.co.in)