Marriage is almost universal in India, and so is dowry. Despite being illegal since 1961, most Indian brides’ families pay a substantial amount of cash and gifts to the grooms’ families at the time of marriage, often amounting to several years of household income. Traditionally, dowry was considered stridhan, i.e., woman’s wealth, and it was indeed a type of premortem bequest as daughters typically did not inherit property from their fathers. Over time, however, dowry has become more of a groom-price that equates the supply and demand of brides and grooms in the marriage market.
Despite its wide prevalence, accurate data on dowry is hard to come by. In fact, even simple things such as the definition of dowry and its trend have been hotly debated in the economics literature. In a new paper, my co-authors, Nishith Prakash and Sungoh Kwon from the University of Connecticut, and I use data from the Rural Economic and Demographic Survey to examine dowry payments for 39,544 marriages that occurred during 1960-2008 in rural India. The graphs below show the broad patterns we find.
Note: The key variable we plot is the average net dowry paid by the bride’s family (in Rupees), i.e., we subtract the amount of gifts paid by the groom’s family from the gifts paid by the bride’s family. We also take into account inflation; all statistics are in 2005 Rupees.
- In real terms, average net dowry per marriage in rural India has remained remarkably stable during 1960-2008 and has fluctuated around Rs. 25,000.
2. The goom’s family typically spends around Rs. 5,000 on gifts to the bride’s family whereas the bride’s family spends approximately Rs. 30,000 on gifts to the groom’s family.
3. The highest dowries are paid by upper-castes, followed by other backward classes (OBCs), scheduled castes (SCs), and scheduled tribes (STs). This ranking too has remained unchanged over time.
4. In terms of religion, dowries among Muslims are only slightly lower than among Hindus. There has been an increase in Muslim dowries since 2000, but the sharpest rise has been taking place among Christians and Sikhs. The latter changes are perhaps a reflection of the trends in Kerala and Punjab, respectively.
5. Lastly, we look at regional variation and find that the relatively flat national average hides substantial variation across states. Look at Kerala, for instance, where real dowries have been rising for quite some time and have crossed Rs. 60,000! In Andhra Pradesh, however, there has been a secular decline, while Karnataka has remained more or less stable. Tamil Nadu also exhibits a decline starting in mid-90s.
Punjab appears to be the Kerala of North India as far as dowry inflation is concerned! The neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have had lower dowries as compared to Punjab, though not as low as Himachal Pradesh.
Among the central-west states, nothing dramatic has happened in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and there has been some decline in Maharashtra. Gujarat, like Haryana, exhibits a sharp increase starting in 2000.
Lastly, in the eastern part of the country, Orissa and West Bengal had much higher dowries than Bihar historically, but they have been experiencing a secular decline over time. In recent years, Bihar and West Bengal have converged on an average net dowry of Rs. 20,000 whereas Orissa stands at Rs. 30,000.
And just in case you were wondering how much you would get/ pay, here are some “dowry calculators” :-):