When couples marry across caste lines, their families often react by withdrawing social and financial support for them. To ensure that their bravery doesn't leave them destitute, the government in 2006 framed the  Dr Savita Ben Ambedkar Inter-caste Marriage Scheme, offering monetary assistance to men and women who break caste taboos.

But last month, the Rajasthan government decided to place conditions on couples wishing to apply for financial aid under the Dr Savita Ben Ambedkar Inter-caste Marriage Scheme. Claiming that it aims to discourage “sham marriages”, the government has decided to ban middle-aged and elderly couples from benefitting from the scheme.

From 2006, when the scheme was launched, till 2012, the Rajasthan government gave Rs 50,000 to each eligible inter-caste couple. In April 2013, Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s government increased the grant to Rs 5 lakh, of which half is given soon after a couple’s application is approved and the other half is invested in a fixed deposit that the couple can access eight years later, if they are still married.

Conditions apply

So far, inter-caste couples in the state could apply for this grant for up to two years after marriage. But, in a notification dated November 20, the government’s department of social justice and empowerment amended the scheme to restrict the application period to one year after marriage.

The more striking amendment, however, was the introduction of an age limit for applicants. From now on, only inter-caste couples below the age of 35 can apply for the Rs 5 lakh grant.

Activists have been appalled by the decision.

“How can the government put age limits on marriage and echo prejudiced logic?” said Kavita Krishnan, a feminist activist and the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “The opponents of inter-caste unions will always try to claim that they are a sham and that it was done by tricking the woman. But often, when such marriages don’t work out, it’s because the girl is forced to return to her home.”

Family pressure

Almost any inter-caste couple – particularly those in which a member is a Dalit – has to face tremendous opposition and pressure from family and society. Many are forced to leave their homes and villages and, as the many honour killings in the country indicate, they often have opponents baying for their blood.

A government scheme offering financial grants becomes an important source of official support for such couples, say activists.

“Fake certificates or false information can be provided by applicants for any government scheme, not just inter-caste marriage,” said Shyam Sonar, a Dalit rights activist based in Mumbai. “That is not a good enough reason to dilute this scheme.”

The scheme was amended because it attracted applications from many old couples,said Harilal Prajapati, an assistant administrative officer in the state’s social justice department. "Sixty or 70 is no age to get married," he said.

He was unable to explain adequately why the time period for applications had been reduced from two years to one year after marriage. “If couples move to a different place for employment after application, it is difficult for us to trace them,” said Prajapati.

Rise in applications

What has been worrying the Rajasthan government is the increasing number of inter-caste couples applying for the scheme in the past few years. According to reports, the state spent Rs 44.8 lakh on the scheme in 2008-'09, providing aid to 57 couples. The number rose to 175 couples in 2012-'13, and, after the grant was increased to Rs 5 lakh, the figure rose to 261 couples in 2013-'14.

Last fortnight, Rajasthan’s Social Justice Minister Arun Chaturvedi claimed that the amendments to the scheme were a reaction to the rising complaints of “sham marriages”, where couples would split up soon after benefiting monetarily from the scheme.

“People bring wrong caste certificates to be eligible for the scheme,” said Prajapati.

But the numbers do not add up. Of the 261 cases of inter-caste marriages in which couples received government aid, only two ended in divorce, admits Prajapati.

Elsewhere in India

Rajasthan is not the only state with a scheme to provide incentives for inter-caste marriages. Each state can frame its own rules and eligibility criteria and then fix an amount. The governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra, for instance, offer Rs 50,000 per couple.

Given the social hardships that most inter-caste couples have to face, Dalit rights activist  Sonar believes the amount is not enough for them to start a new life from scratch.

“But the main problem is that no state government – in Maharashtra or elsewhere – is doing enough to advertise this scheme and make people aware of the support they are eligible for,” said Sonar, who had an inter-caste marriage himself five years ago.

“Back then, we had no idea this scheme existed, although we did need the money,” he said. “If governments can advertise so many other schemes on TV and in newspapers, why not this one?”