How do you find a bride? The new struggle in crisis-hit rural India

As climate change, low earnings and high debts batter them, young male farmers can’t find women willing to marry them.

Bhushan Unde, 31,
Bhushan Unde, 31, a farmer and computer operator, has a poor-paying job, no financial security and few prospects, he says, of finding a woman who might be willing to marry him [Kunal Purohit/Al Jazeera]

Yavatmal/Mumbai, India — On a warm Sunday afternoon in April, a group of farmers sits on a roadside bench at the intersection of the highway with their village, Raveri, in the Yavatmal district of western India’s Maharashtra state.

One of them, Bhushan Unde, 31, has his phone out and is looking for a meme on Instagram. He finds it and gathers the group around him. Unde also works at the local government hospital as a computer operator.

The meme has a man, nearly their age who, like Unde, cannot find a bride. So, he devises an alternative: he dresses up in a groom’s finery and then goes on to put the wedding garland around his own neck. ‘If you can’t get a bride, just marry yourself!’, he says at the end. The group bursts out into loud laughter, but the burst is a short one. The joke hits home.

“This is the truth,” Unde says, only half-smiling. “I think we will all have to resort to exactly this now.”

As millions of Indians vote in the world’s largest election, spread out over nearly seven weeks, inflation, unemployment and underemployment have emerged as key voter concerns, even as religion, caste and the personal popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also vie for their attention.

But in the heartland of India’s agrarian distress, Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, where thousands of farmers die by suicide each year, a new struggle is taking root: a marriage crisis. A combination of climate change and government policies that farmers say do not work for them is leaving male farmers teetering on the brink of financial precarity.

In a conservative society where men constitute more than three-quarters of the workforce, and so are expected to serve as primary breadwinners for families, this economic peril means many of them are unable to convince women to marry them.

Their efforts to build a more financially stable future for themselves often come up against factors almost out of their control: from a poor minimum support price – a government benchmark price meant to protect farmers from too much market fluctuation – for their farm produce and a lack of employment options, to rising debts as a result of extreme weather events.

It is a crisis missing from the political slogans that dominate the rallies of major political parties, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to the opposition Indian National Congress.

Yet it is on the minds of young farmers as they walk to polling booths in the searing heat of India’s summer.

Pravin Pawar
Pravin Pawar has a master’s in economics and has tried securing government jobs without success. He is now losing hope of any financial security, without which, he does not expect to get married [Kunal Purohit/Al Jazeera]

‘I keep trying my luck’

They all have different ways of dealing with it.

Faced with rejections from women, some male farmers feign reasons for why they “don’t want to get married” just yet. Some claim they need more time to build a better home, and others say they want a better job. Some even lie about their age.

Others keep trying to move up the financial ladder in the hope of getting to a place where their marital prospects improve – only to find that they are still on the same rung.

Pravin Pawar, 31, moved away from his farming background, finished a bachelor’s degree in arts, and then a master’s in economics. But the dearth of better jobs in his region meant Pawar, who is from Maharashtra’s Dabhadi village, only landed a low-paying job to stitch jeans trousers.

He started taking competitive exams that would give him a government job, no matter what department. He tried for years, without success. He could not make the cut. So, he quit taking exams and looked for jobs again. Again, he could only get low-paying jobs.

After five years, Pawar is now exasperated. His search for a job and a bride feels unending and he does not have much hope. “I am back on the farm now, but I keep trying my luck at every job listing that I see,” Pawar says. “If it does not work out, I’ll just stick to being a farmer. What else can I even do?”

‘Only way ahead’

Across villages of Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, the sight of single farmers in their 30s is now increasingly common in a country where the mean age at which men get married is 26, per the latest World Bank data.

Sitting next to Unde on the bench near Raveri is Ashish Jadhav*, 36, who has been searching for a bride for nearly five years. He says almost everyone he knows is in the same position.

“From my college batch, only 30 percent of the men managed to get brides,” he says. “The rest of us have just been wandering around,” he says, laughing. “Families [of potential brides] want someone with a job, or a farmer with 20-acre farmland which is irrigated,” Jadhav says. “I have neither.”

When Jadhav meets families of prospective brides, he tells them he is 30 years old, not 36. Unde, his friend, says this is the “only way ahead” for Jadhav. “There is no way that a 36-year-old man in rural Maharashtra would get a bride,” Unde says.

Civil society activists agree with what farmers like Unde and Jadhav say but add that there is a logic to these “demands” from women and their families.

Activist Aarti Bais believes that such demands are driven by two factors: the need for a more secure and certain future as well as rising aspirations.

Since the beginning of the century, this part of India has seen tens of thousands of farmers killing themselves as a result of the agrarian crisis. Families of young women, aware of the precariousness that agriculture brings, are careful in choosing their partners.

“Bride families tend to focus on material wealth a lot more now, so much so that they prefer men with government jobs,” Bais, who works with Swarajya Mitra, an organisation that works with issues of farmers and the young in Vidarbha, says. “If the men have private jobs, then families want them to also own agricultural land, just in case they lose their jobs,” she says.

The result, she said, is dire. “Both men and women are unable to marry, often till their late 30s,” she says.

Rekha Gaikwad*, 28, in the neighbouring district of Wardha, is among those struggling to find a suitable male suitor. “Education levels are rising in girls and hence, they are aspiring for better lives for themselves,” she says.

“So, most girls in rural areas, having seen their own families struggle to eke out a livelihood through farming, don’t want to marry a farmer. Instead, they want to marry into a household that offers a better lifestyle and more prosperity,” she adds. “None of this is possible with a farming livelihood.”

Rathod 1
“I am 31 and unmarried, which is unheard of in my community,” says Dnyaneshwar Rathod, of Dabhadi village in India’s Maharashtra state

Giving it all

Still, the dream – and the hope of marriage – lives on. Armed with an undergraduate degree and a specialisation in biology, Unde looked for a job.

But his village, Raveri, had no jobs, so he went to Ralegaon, about 3km away, and got a job as an “office operation executive” in a government hospital, where he makes 9,000 Indian rupees ($108) each month.

Next, he was told by relatives and friends that he had to build a new home if he wanted to impress any prospective suitors. With his salary barely able to cover his family’s costs, his mother had to take up farm labour again while his younger brother finished college. Even that was not enough. So, Unde sold a plot of land the family had owned for decades.

The home is finally ready and the Unde household is about to move in, but constructing it has squeezed every penny out of the family, leaving no money for the family to organise a wedding ceremony.

Each year, Unde believes the next year’s farm produce will solve the family’s problems. Each year, he returns home disappointed after selling his produce.

“For the last few years, we have seen either excessive rainfall or hailstorms in this region and as a result, the crops end up getting damaged,” Unde says.

If the crops sustain, market rates crash: during the harvest of 2023, Unde managed to sell his cotton produce at just over 6,500 rupees ($78) per quintal, as against the nearly 10,000 rupees ($120) per quintal his cotton fetched the year before.

For now, wedding hopes are on the back burner and Unde is back to banking on his farm. “All I need is just one year of good produce and good rates,” Unde says.

‘How am I going to feed my wife?’

Unlike Unde, 31-year-old Dnyaneshwar Rathod says he knows better than to let his fortunes rest on agriculture. Rathod is a resident of Dabhadi village.

His father, Prakash Rathod, had made that mistake – a farmer, for years, crop failures led to his debt rising each year. One day, in 2013, he came home from the farm, drank poison and took his own life, unable to bear the debt any more. He was 45.

Dnyaneshwar, since then, has steadfastly kept himself away from the farm that pushed his father over the edge. “I wanted to educate myself so that we didn’t have to depend on agriculture any more,” he says, harking back to those difficult years.  He stayed true to his word – he got a postgraduate degree and then a diploma in education.

Dnyaneshwar looked for jobs, but could not find anything, except jobs that did not require his education and paid little: a computer operator’s job that paid 4,000 rupees ($48) and a field job collecting orders from retailers for a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brand that paid 15,000 rupees ($180). So, Dnyaneshwar decided to apply for government jobs – any government job he could find. He lists the jobs he has applied for – teacher, medical helper, tax assistant, clerk and excise inspector.

“Basically, I applied for every government post that had a vacancy,” he says. It has been six years since he started doing this. But so far, he has not received a single job offer. “I have been short-listed by various departments, but the process from being short-listed to being hired has taken years,” Dnyaneshwar says.

As a result, Dnyaneshwar, from the Banjara community, believes he is “very late” in getting married. “I am 31 and unmarried, which is unheard of in my community,” he says.

Dnyaneshwar still wants to get married but knows the odds are stacked against him until he can find a well-paying job. “If I can’t earn a single rupee, how am I going to feed my wife?”

Source: Al Jazeera