| An under-age couple, Lakhinder Marandi and his bride Bahamuni (12), in Narayanpur
Jamtara, July 9: Madan Mohan Jaiswal, development officer of the poverty-racked block of Narayanpur in Jamtara district, spent much of last week hunting a suitable second groom. The bride: Rekha Kumari, all of 12 years old.
Rekha’s father Vakil Das, a resident of Nabadih village, had given his child away in marriage on June 24 during the much-publicised Mukhya Mantri Kanyadaan Yojana, under which below-poverty-line couples get a cheque of Rs 5,497, a cooking gas connection, utensils and basic requirements for setting up a home.
What put Jaiswal in trouble was that the groom fled when some voluntary organisations launched an agitation to protest against the mass marriage, where, they alleged, at least 50 under-age couples tied the knot. This after the girl had received funds entitled under the scheme from the government.
On July 1, the BDO did find a groom, Binod Mondal of Mondaldehi village, who the people claimed was 14 years old.
Jaiswal appeared unmoved when asked how, he, being a government official, could agree to child marriage. “I solemnised the marriage because the girl had taken financial assistance from the government,” he said. “First change the custom and the socio-economic condition of the region, then talk about child marriage.”
The project, inaugurated on January 26, 2004, in Dumka by chief minister Arjun Munda, is meant for boys and girls from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes families which are below the poverty line.
In Jamtara district, Rs 25.5 lakh was sanctioned for the project in the financial year 2003-2004. But a total of Rs 24.3 lakh has already been spent on the mass marriage organised on June 24, in which 243 couples participated.
The district welfare department, which was given the responsibility to supervise the marriage, had to obtain the age certificates of the couples along with other related documents from the panchayats.
Villagers said the offer to get their children married was tempting. “One Subodh Chandrabanshi of Nala approached us for our 9-year-old daughter, who he wanted as a bride for his 19-year-old son Deepak, working with a stone-crusher. We know the bad effects of child marriage but for poor people like us who hardly manage two square meals a day, the offer was a godsend,” said the man, who stays in Kundohit block.
Dulal Hansdak (16) and Sonamuni (13), one such couple from Narayanpur who got married, have left their village following advice that if they didn’t, the police would come after them. “Our parents told us to go away to avoid the police. We are minors but got married for the money. It was not our parents but the middlemen who played a major role,” said Sonamuni.
Jamtara deputy commissioner Mohon Lal Ray admitted that he had “driven away” a minor couple from the marriage venue, but said he was helpless as “child marriage is not a cognisable offence”.
“I am aware of the negative impact of child marriage and have asked the organisers to send the message against such social evils. But we cannot arrest anyone as child marriage is not a cognisable offence,” Ray said.
The deputy commissioner said he did not have the full list of beneficiaries with him as the district welfare officer was not in town. What is more surprising is that the administration does not provide any marriage certificate to the couples. No one seems to know why. “There is no provision,” was Ray’s explanation.
Lawyer and social worker Basudev Besra, however, pointed out that all officials concerned, including the deputy commissioner, would be responsible for violation of the child marriage law. Referring to Section 6 of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, Besra said violating the law was an offence under the Criminal Procedure Code.
“Whoever performs, conducts or directs any child marriage shall be punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend to three months and shall also be liable to fine unless he proves that he had reason to believe the marriage was not a child marriage,” Besra quoted the law as stating.
Since the administration conducted the marriage procedure under the scheme, the deputy commissioner stands guilty, the lawyer said.
The vice-president of the Jamtara district 20-point programme and implementation committee, Tarun Gupta, who was present at the mass marriage, alleged that the administration arranged the function only to meet its target.
Amid mounting pressure, Ray later announced that a committee headed by deputy development commissioner Shyam Shankar Prasad would inquire into the event. “After receiving the report, I will be in a position to fix responsibility on government officials and staff,” he said.