Patna, Feb. 9: On a rain-drenched evening late in August, 12-year-old Rina Kumari of Gaya broke into a fit of laughter when she saw 55-year-old Ramaiya Singh for the first time.
Soon after, she was married to the farmer from Bhabua, a widower. The chirpy girl was unaware how her life had changed.
Life for the two families may have gone on unchanged if district welfare officer Ramshakal Prasad and his team had not got wind of the marriage. Prasad, already on alert after the state’s notice on preventing child marriages early in August, raided the minor bride’s house.
The state had issued notices to its welfare officers to check child marriages, reportedly under pressure from the Centre to improve its record in population control.
After the raid, Prasad filed an FIR against Ramaiya Singh and the girl’s father, Radhesyam Chowdhary.
“We have lodged an FIR under the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929. But the groom is absconding. The girl’s father said he was compelled to agree to the marriage because of poverty,” said an officer of the Amas police station in Gaya. Rina’s marriage took place in Likhua Bahera village in Amas police station area.
Around the same time as Rina’s marriage, news reached the social welfare department of a Darbhanga subdivisional officer’s attempt to get his 10-year-old servant married to an elderly man from his own household.
The state secretariat immediately asked the Darbhanga district magistrate to report on the matter, and social welfare secretary G.S. Kang swung into action.
He ordered all his district welfare officers to review incidents of child marriages and report back. The reports that began trickling in over the next few months jolted the administration out of its perception that child marriages happen only in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Most child marriages in Bihar, confined to the backward castes, usually go unreported and hence the state’s misplaced perception.
“The reports which have trickled in so far have made us look at the problem afresh,” Kang said. “We have asked for elaborate details of child marriages and asked the police to take action.”
The January meeting of chief ministers of Bimaru (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) states with the Prime Minister added urgency to the crackdown.
According to the social welfare department’s report, between August and October at least five child marriages were solemnised in the old Patna city area. Munger district, too, reported two such marriages in Tarapur police station area as also Jamui, where five minor girls were married off to elderly men.
Among them was Rupmani Kumari, the nine-year-old daughter of Dhanesaran Yadav, who was married to Mahu Saran, 35, of Kanan village.
“Some concrete action in terms of drawing up FIRs have been taken,” said Mala Prasad, assistant secretary, social welfare. The police have been told to make arrests, she said, because “we want to instil a sense of fear among the parents”.
According to a voluntary organisation’s private survey, 57 per cent of backward caste women get married before they are 18. The result is population growth by 29 per cent while the national average is 25 per cent. “Early marriage means increased fertility,” a social welfare department officer said.
A social worker linked the child marriages to trafficking in girls. “If we probe, it can tell us a different story on how the early marriage syndrome is being exploited by girl-traffickers. A major share of the minors who get married early risk landing up in brothels,” said Arun Kumar.