New Delhi (WFS) - Archana Baxi loves Delhi. Living in the big city gives her the anonymity she did not enjoy in her village in Punjab where she grew up. In Delhi, no one asks her prying questions like why she isn't married yet or what she does with her huge salary or why she lives in with her boyfriend - who shuttles between Delhi and Mumbai.

Archana only dreads her mother's periodic visits to the city because, like all mothers, Baxi senior voices her concerns on her daughter's living arrangement. She worries about what would become of Archana if her boyfriend decided to break off with her one day.

However, in what can be termed as a progressive move that will have a far-reaching impact, the Maharashtra government recently proposed an amendment in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) that would give a woman in a live-in relationship the right to seek maintenance post-desertion. Of course, it would need the Centre's stamp of approval before it can become a law. So, while it may be some more time before legal support for women in long-term live-in relationships across India comes into force, Archana's mother can at least lay some of her fears to rest.

The Maharashtra government recently approved a proposal where a woman in a live-in relationship for a "reasonable period" of time would get the status of a "wife". The approval came on the heels of the recommendations of the Justice Malimath Committee, which said that if a man and a woman are living together as husband and wife for a "reasonably long period", the man shall be deemed to have married the woman according to customary rights of either party.

While for many people living-in is a matter of personal choice, there are youngsters today who see it as a means of rebelling against their families or society.

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The Malimath Committee was formed by the Centre to suggest reforms in the CrPC. However, only Maharashtra has shown interest in protecting the rights of women in polygamous relationships by working towards implementing some recommendations. The Centre has comfortably chosen to ignore them as they are bound to raise the hackles of the moral police.

When the proposed amendment was announced, critics immediately sprung up to say that the move would encourage men and women to get into multiple relationships outside of marriage. However, one of the major reasons for this move was that numerous women were finding it very difficult to get any assistance from men who had deserted them after living with them on the promise of marriage in the future. In many cases, the women did not even know that the man they had been living with was, in fact, already married.

As per the Malimath Committee recommendations, the state government, therefore, wants the CrPC to be amended so that the word 'wife' under Section 125 includes a woman living with a man like his wife for a "reasonably long period". This will ensure that these women are entitled to alimony.

Points out Mumbai-based writer Rajendar Menen, who has widely written on relationships, "I am sure people are living-in all over India surreptitiously. It is like corruption and visiting sex workers. But it is great that the government is finally accepting live-in relationships. It is a step in the right direction."

When the amendment comes through, it will, for the first time, protect the interests of women who have been taken for a ride by uncaring men. But the state has yet to clarify how long the "reasonably long period" should be. And this ambiguity many feel may give rise to bigamy. Menen says, "As time passes, marriage, as an institution, will get less important. It has already lost ground. A lot of people in urban settings are living together. They don't trumpet the fact, that's all. As women get more empowered and don't rely completely on men for financial support, they will begin to choose their partners for reasons other than monetary support. Thankfully, the balance is shifting now and men no longer call the shots."

Menen however is guarded on the pace and universality of the change. "But women's empowerment is a long and slow process, and all this will take time in India which lives in so many diverse time, cultural and economic zones" he says.

Live-in relationships are definitely more glamorous and easy but marriage has its advantages as well. Nick Powdthavee of the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick in England carried out a study of 9,704 married people at the university in 2005. The study revealed that married people were deriving happiness from each other's happiness unlike those who were just living together. The research also indicated that marriage encouraged the habit of sharing among spouses who stood by each other in both good and bad times.

Yet, living-in is a popular concept among the young. In fact, even those who are not involved in such a relationship are all for it. Aloke Gupta, a Mumbai-based software engineer, is not in a live-in relationship, but says, "There is nothing wrong with a live-in situation. Different people see marriage differently. Some use it to lose their virginity, some to get dowry; some see it as a business deal, some to have children, and so on. Only a few marry for love. So a live-in relationship makes so much sense."

Menen adds, "The problem with marriages in India are the expectations. There are in-laws and an extended family - they all want different things from you. For example, during Diwali, I may just want to go and relax by the seaside. I can do this if I am single. But if I am married, I would have to be with my wife and visit people I don't want to meet, shop for gifts, and participate in rituals I do not believe in."

But while for many people living-in is a matter of personal choice, there are youngsters today who see it as a means of rebelling against their families or society. Two people should live together only if they are in love and seriously committed to each other, not to merely share a pad and save on expenses like food and travel. They also have to be strong enough to face social drama, as most people in India still do not accept such relationships.

Unfortunately, in cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Pune there are many young people - especially in the BPO industry - who get into a live-in relationship just to neutralise their boredom. While some end up formalising their tie with a marriage certificate, for many things go sour and they just move on.

Given this reality, the Maharashtra government's move to give women the right to seek maintenance post-desertion should be welcomed. (Women's Feature Service)