A proposal by the Kerala Women’s Commission proposal to curb marriage expenditure has created ripples in the state’s wedding industry and sparked a debate that touches on issues like class and migration.

The panel urged the state government to draft a legal framework limiting the total wedding expenditure to Rs 5 lakh by imposing caps on individual expenses. It advised that no more than 80 grams of jewellery should be allowed to be gifted to the bride and the guest list should not be allowed to cross 200. Nobody should spend more than Rs 10,000 on the bridal dress, Rs 5,000 on the groom’s clothes, Rs 100 per plate for the wedding feast, and Rs 25,000 on the venue.

In addition, the commission recommended a fine of 25% of the total wedding expenditure on those who cross the ceiling, and using this amount for weddings of poor women.

Commission chairperson KC Rosakutty says the proposals seek to check the garish exhibitions of wealth by the rich, which are influencing the poor. In their eagerness to imitate the lavishness, the poor too splurge on weddings, sometimes selling their houses in order to do so.

While well-intentioned, the commission’s suggestions may be ambitious, perhaps even utopian, in a state where people across castes, religions and classes celebrate wedding as the biggest event of their life. A leading event management firm in Kochi says its clients on average spend Rs 50 lakh on a wedding. This doesn’t include the budget for gold, which is so beloved of the state. Estimates put the worth of Kerala’s wedding industry at a staggering Rs 10,000 crore.

All that's gold...

Little wonder then that the women’s commission’s proposals have spawned a debate. The wedding industry is opposing them on the grounds that they will be a job-killer, while social activists are divided on whether they will yield any results. Some see the suggestions as a move in the right direction, whereas others argue that such reformation cannot be imposed.

“The vulgar display of financial clout in marriages and other social events needs to be curtailed by all means,” said K Raveendran, a Dubai-based business journalist. “But this cannot be achieved by enacting arbitrary and dismissive laws that do not take into account its context and culture. It has to be done through awareness and has to come from within.”

“The ceilings suggested for gold ornaments betray a sense of high moral posturing that even the members of the commission may be incapable of practising,” added Raveendran.

Kerala now accounts for 20% of the gold traded in India, spending nearly Rs 20,000 crore on 75 tonnes of the metal every year. And a bulk of this is loaded on women during their weddings.

Wedding industry representatives say if the commission’s recommendations are accepted, it will lead to the closure of hundreds of wedding halls, decorators, catering firms and event management companies, besides cutting down the business of textile shops, jeweller stores and associated business, rendering thousands of people jobless.

KT George, the owner of a posh convention centre in Thiruvananthapuram, says he will be forced to lay off at least 25 permanent workers if a limit is fixed on the rent of the hall that currently stands at Rs 1.5 lakh. It will also indirectly affect another 100 workers since the 2,500-seater hall that he built at a cost of Rs 10 crore survives solely on weddings.

George, a former NRI, points out that a previous attempt by the government to impose a cess on wedding halls had failed. The High Court struck down that order, terming it unconstitutional and ordered a refund of the cess collected from wedding hall owners.

K V Shamsudheen, a Sharjah-based social activist spearheading a campaign to cultivate saving habits among NRIs for the past 10 years, backs the women’s panel initiative. He hopes that it will at least trigger a debate on wedding extravaganza, which he likens to a growing cancer.

“Compared to many other states, the expenses of marriage are rising day by day in Kerala,” said Shamsudheen. “Politicians, businessmen and NRIs are spending millions to show their financial muscle. The less affluent take loans to catch up with the trend and end up in a debt trap.”

Ripple effect of profligacy

How did this trend begin?

The early migrants from the state to the Persian Gulf, who hailed mostly from poor families, found no avenues of investment in the industrially backward state. So they spent their “windfall income” on items of conspicuous consumption. Weddings was one such item.

They flaunted their wealth by decking up the bride in gold, lining up luxury cars such as Mercedes and BMW besides caparisoned elephants and camels, and offering expensive spreads to thousands of guests in star hotels and plush resorts.

Even though present-day migrants do not earn even a quarter of the money their predecessors did, they blindly copy the extravagance by borrowing money just to keep the reputation of the Gulf migrants alive. Most of them, in fact, save money for just two reasons: to build a big house and marry off their sisters or daughters into affluent families.

This profligacy of the migrants, who account for about 10% of the state’s population, put pressure on the local residents. The poor and the middle class have been trying to emulate them by spending money on weddings that they don’t even possess – just to stay in the social race.

As a result of this, wedding expenditures in the state have skyrocketed, and the wedding industry has become one of the most thriving sectors in the state, with multi-crore wedding centres, wedding halls and jewellery and textile shops mushrooming even in rural areas.

A study by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad in 2006 revealed that Keralites were spending about 15% of the family income on weddings.

People employed in textile stores say even a middle class family buys silk saris worth anything between Rs 75,000 and Rs 1 lakh. The upper middle class, meanwhile, keeps a budget of Rs 2 lakh to Rs 4 lakh for silk saris. When the costs of wedding hall, food, transport, video recording and venue decoration are added up, even an average wedding becomes an expensive affair.

Home and abroad

Paradoxically, while the wedding industry grows, a substantial number of marriages are ending up in divorces. Statistics show that the number of divorce applications filed in family courts across the state went up from 8,456 in 2005-06 to 44,982 in 2012. A report in a national daily said Kerala accounted for 1.96 lakh of the nation’s 23.43 lakh divorced or separated women.

Change may be coming, albeit slowly. Shamsudheen say many NRIs across the Middle East who have participated in his campaign to encourage saving habits have agreed to simple weddings. Some, he adds, have agreed to refund the dowry they took.

Shamsudheen’s efforts have spurred Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre, an overseas body representing the Indian Union Muslim League, a major constituent of the ruling Congress-led government in the state, to launch an awareness campaign against wedding extravaganza.

KMCC Dubai Chapter president Anwar Naha said that a leading businessman in the Gulf decided to cut down his daughter’s wedding expenditure by half because of their campaign. He reduced the feast cost from Rs 1,600 per plate to Rs 800, saving Rs 20 lakh on one count alone.

The campaign in the Middle East is considered significant since the NRIs have set the trend for extravagant wedding. Maybe the women’s commission initiative will trigger similar changes at home.