For some brides-to-be, especially those from middle-class or upper-middle-class families, the shortage has brought more power.
In arranged marriages, which remain popular in India, young women seldom had much choice. They were married off to men, bringing along dowries that included TV sets, money and gold. Today, prospective brides are much more demanding -- and in many cases, a dowry does not enter the picture. It's a simple case of supply and demand. And there is quite a large number of men to choose from.
Take the case of my cousin, who is handsome and well-employed in Mumbai. His parents have been looking for a bride for him for months. But all his potential brides -- and their parents -- wanted some serious questions answered before they would even consider marrying him: How much savings in the bank? Investments? Properties? A top college? What brand of car? American or British passport?
My cousin is still single.
The marriage blues have gotten so bad for bachelors in some parts of India that they have to travel hundreds of miles to find a bride. Men from the village of Sorkhi, nestled in the northern state of Haryana, are traveling 1,700 miles south to Kerala to seek women willing to marry them, according to the Associated Press. The women, elders said, are picky, leaving as many as 250 young men unmarried.
“Earlier, families with girls of a marriageable age would seek out boys and entice them with rich dowries," villager Virender Berwal told the Associated Press. "Now, it’s the other way round. The girl’s family checks out the boy. They want to know how much land the boy has, whether he has a government job and whether their daughter will live in reasonable comfort."
In Haryana, there are 834 girls per 1,000 boys age 6 and under, according to Indian census figures. Across the country, the ratio has fallen to 919 girls for every 1,000 boys for the same age group, the most uneven level since 1947.
Last year, bachelors in Haryana reportedly demanded that politicians running for state elections hand them brides in exchange for votes. (Politicians reportedly rejected the demands.)
For decades, impoverished families preferred boys to girls because they could avoid the burden of paying dowries. The tradition has persisted even as laws have been enacted prohibiting such customs. Males are also traditionally expected to care for their parents in their old age; a female becomes part of her husband's family after marriage, and her life becomes focused on her in-laws.
Such traditions have played a prominent role in the abortion of female fetuses to the extent that the Indian government banned prenatal sex determination tests in 1994 and made it illegal for doctors conducting sonograms to reveal the sex of the child before birth. Still, the practice remains prevalent. Sex-selection abortions remain a problem, along with female infanticides.
The shortage of women, activists say, has led to a profitable trade in bride trafficking that shows no signs of decreasing. Girls are promised jobs or a husband and are then sold off to brokers, who in turn sell them into forced marriages. Statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau show that nearly 25,000 girls and women ages 15 to 30 were kidnapped and sold into marriage across the country in 2013. Recently, New Delhi police busted a human trafficking ring that was selling girls to men in Haryana, according to the Associated Press.