x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Bachelors left on the mountain shelf

Desperate to attract brides, unmarried Biharis in India have started carving out a link to the plains, but a court order threatens to thwart them.

KOLKATA // In January, more than a hundred bachelors, young and old, began laying a road from their remote, hilltop villages through thick forests to the villages of the plains, hoping to put an end to a decades-old crisis: because of their extreme isolation, women from surrounding areas refuse to marry the villagers.

The twin villages of Barwaan Kala and Barwaan Khurd sit atop the Kaimur Hills in Bihar state and are known locally as the "villages of unmarried people". Among the low-caste, impoverished Hindu families are 121 bachelors, in a combined population of 850, including 35 between the ages of 40 and 60. According to village elders, no marriages have taken place there in the past 50 years. The lack of infrastructure, particularly roads between the villages and more settled areas, has made Barwaan Kala and Khurd profoundly unattractive for families looking for husbands for their daughters.

"Sometimes our usual way of carrying patients or pregnant women - on a cot hanging from a shoulder-carried log - is too strenuous for the carriers and even the patients, and so many people could not be hospitalised in time and some of them died in the forest. Such incidents dissuaded outside families to send their daughters in marriage to our villages," said the former Barwaan Kala village chief, Ramdayal Singh.

Ramprasad Singh, 65, a bachelor from Barwaan Kala, said that village was only accessible "by helicopter or by foot" and because of this many men remained single. "The government did not pay attention to our long-standing demand for the road. So our younger men felt they had had enough and began to lay the road on their own, hoping to end their isolation," he added. Because local custom dictates that women live with their husbands' families after marriage, girls in the Kaimur Hills do not face a similar problem. They are taken to relatives' homes in more accessible villages where they marry.

Jaishankar Bihari, a local political activist, said although it was mostly men affected by the matrimonial crisis, the absence of roads also severely hampered socioeconomic developments in the two villages. "Unmarried, frustrated men are also failing to contribute to the all-round development of their villages. A good road can solve many problems for the entire area," said Mr Bihari, who works for the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), a Dalit party, which represents the interests of low-caste Hindus.

Mr Singh said they felt cheated by the government and also by the local member of the legislative assembly (MLA), as a result they started to build the road on their own. The MLA, Ram Chandra Yadav, had promised before the 2005 Bihar state elections that he would not marry unless the villages were connected to the outside world, but after his victory he did not keep the promise, Mr Singh alleged.

"He broke his promise and married after winning the election, having done nothing to address our only demand - building the road. None of us went to attend his wedding and we pledged to build the road without any outside help," said Mr Singh, who also explained that the bachelors could not marry local girls since, being from the same clan, they were like sisters. In January, the villagers called for a meeting and decided to begin construction. The men took up pickaxes, shovels and hammers and began to build the six-kilometre road across rugged, forested terrain to connect their villages to the villages on the plains.

Three months later they were more than halfway and hoping to finish by the end of this year when their efforts hit a roadblock. The government stopped them because the road cut through a forest reserve. Forest authorities filed a case against the villagers for "illegal construction" in the reserve and a local court issued an injunction against the roadwork in May. R K Ram, a local divisional forest officer, said that although he was sympathetic to the villagers' plight, he had to take action because the forest was protected by a decree of the Supreme Court.

Although the law stands in their way, the bachelors hope their dream for the road will materialise and they will be able to marry. "We will win and like others elsewhere we shall get married," Rohit Yadav, 32, an aspiring bridegroom, said. Like many in town, Mr Yadav hopes the court will take a lenient view of the situation. Some of the villagers decided to leave Barwaan Kala and Barwaan Khurd and settle on the plain.

"Like most others here, I rejected that idea. I could not leave my ancestral property here," said Rajagiri Singh, 58, another Barwaan Kala resident. "When I was young, five of my marriage negotiations failed and so did my hopes, finally." Still, some cunning men from the two villages have managed to trap brides by temporarily staying with relatives in well-connected villages and hiding their home addresses from their prospective in-laws.

"While staying in a relative's house [in a developed village] I sent the proposal, but I did not tell them that I was from Barwaan. They liked me and accepted me as their son-in-law," said Budhlal Yadav, 32, who married five years ago. The couple live in Barwaan Kala with their two daughters and eight-year-old son. Like Rohit Yadav, Mr Yadav said he believes that one day the villagers will be able to build a road.

"I hope that by the time my son grows up, the road will be built and he will not need to take any surreptitious route to bring his wife."