WAYANAD (KERALA): When P. Devasia of Pulpally took his own life last week, he was upset because he could not raise the money for his daughter's marriage. The 48-year-old farmer was also the first victim of the government's new rules of pepper sale. These require a lengthy and intrusive process. One that makes it very hard for the farmer to sell his own produce without entering a bureaucratic maze that could tie him down for weeks.

Yet Devasia's act of despair reflects a growing problem in Wayanad. The number of weddings has fallen sharply. In this crisis-hit district, many are simply unable to afford them.

"People are not willing to send their daughters to Pulpally," K.C. Chacko told us. "Earlier they were eager to." Mr. Chacko is retired principal of St. Mary's Higher Secondary School. "This was once the most prosperous area," he says. "Now it is in the doldrums." At the St. Mary's Church - the biggest in Pulpally - Fr. Jose Mundakal says that "weddings are down almost 50 per cent as compared to five years ago."

In Kabinigiri, Chinamma Jose explains why. Her husband E.T. Jose was one among 150 or more farmers who committed suicide in 2004. "He could not complete the house we were building. Now I don't know what to do. It is time for my daughter (aged 23) to get married but where's the money? We ran a teashop for a long time. That folded as people had no more to spend and stopped coming."

No takers for agriculture

"I'd sell what remaining land we have - 70 cents. But there are no buyers. Who will touch agriculture now? We had more land, but sold off an acre four years ago when the troubles began. Just one month before he died, my husband sold off another 35 cents. It raised very little cash. When pepper and coffee prices collapsed, we even leased some land for growing paddy. But earned nothing. It seems the only option is to keep my girl studying until I build that house. No one will marry her till it is complete."

That tends to be the story in many farm households. Daughters' weddings on hold. It's a painful issue for people to talk about. But some face up to it.

Marriages delayed

At St. Sebastian's Church in Mullankoly, Fr. George Alukka and some of his parishioners confirm the problem. "There are now three to four year delays in many weddings." Girls here normally wed around age 20-22, "but now there are some unmarried at 30." The agrarian crisis gripping this district is having a profound impact on the institution of marriage.

"People have even tried offering land as dowry," says farmer K.M. Thomas, "but the bridegrooms don't want it." Dowry problems and pressures are now intense. To the extent of creating serious stress for the brides, says Fr. A.K. Varghese, Vicar of the St. George Orthodox Church in Padichira.

"This gets worse where there are more girls in the family. The burden of expenses is in itself hard to bear. But problems of status also creep in."

"Say, the first girl got married four years ago. The family might have given Rs. 5 lakhs in dowry. Now, for the second girl, they perhaps cannot afford even Rs. 20,000. The first girl has married into a household of higher economic status. The second into a much poorer family. To be honest, it can create serious tensions. Besides, there are now many girls above 25, even 30, with no one to marry. It brings huge imbalances, within and between families. Parents' ties with their children can also suffer."

Fr. Baby Elias of the Mar Basil Church in Cheeyambam also confirms that weddings are down. "In our parish, we would expect 12-18 weddings each year," he says. "Last year, there were only five."

Catering hit

Meanwhile, the effect of what is for many an unwritten moratorium on marriages is clear in related fields, too. "Catering for weddings is down by at least 30 per cent for us. Others too, have been hit," says C.H. Balan. He is proprietor of Hotel Kalpaka, one of Sultan Bathery's most famous eating places. "But the damage goes beyond that. Not only are orders for wedding dinners down, the number of items people ask for when placing such orders is far less than it was four years ago. We are also losing money because gas, electricity, provisions - everything is more expensive now."

But Mr. Balan is trapped. He cannot offset this by hiking prices even in his popular eating joint. "People don't have money. This crisis and price crash means they cannot afford what they earlier used to. Our own costs are up but I cannot raise the price list on my menu. All I've done is to charge one rupee more for full meals. The number of people eating at the deluxe section of this restaurant has fallen. The number of tourists and visiting merchants has dropped sharply. We're hit in more ways than one."

'Cultural transition'

"There is also a big cultural transition," says Fr. George Vettikatil. He is Procurator at the Catholic Bishop's House in Sultan Bathery. "Earlier, the whole neighbourhood helped with a wedding. The people next door brought chairs, food and other help. But the past decade has seen that change. It got very commercial. And weddings came to depend on individual family expenditure rather than on community effort. That loss of community now hurts in the time of crisis." And the more commercial it gets, the more it hurts.