India's illegal dowry system is still thriving, leaving women vulnerable to abuse, sometimes even murder. Adam Mynott asks if new police powers to combat violence against brides are proving effective.
Legislation outlawing dowries is widely ignored
Vimla Mehra tours the offices round the women's crime unit in south Delhi every morning.
As police superintendent in charge of the unit, she likes to keep in touch with what is going on.
Inside each cramped office is a desk and, round the walls, half a dozen chairs.
These chairs are occupied from dawn till dusk by warring families.
Wives have turned up to accuse husbands of mental torture and beatings; mothers and fathers accuse their sons-in-law of theft or of demanding dowry payments with menaces long after the wedding.
Husbands are claiming their wives have been cheating on them.
In the middle a police officer - usually a woman - listens patiently as the exchanges pick up from annoyance to anger to fury.
Occasionally, she will intervene to try to calm the shouting and the screaming.
The Crime Women Cell, tucked away behind a gudwara (a Sikh temple), just off the inner ring road in south Delhi, was set up to help protect women in male dominated Indian society.
Crimes against women have soared in the past 10 years.
There were nearly 150,000 recorded in 2000 by the National Crimes Record Bureau, up from 130,000 in 1998, and many more crimes are committed than recorded.
These are serious crimes: murder, rape and assault.
Mrs Mehra says: "The main problem is dowry. I don't know why, but more and more women come to us.
"Husbands are demanding things - a scooter or some money - it's one of the easiest ways to get money."
She has seen it all and says that the growing middle class in India is fuelling the demands for dowry cash and gifts.
"They have more, and they want more."
Mrs Mehra's police unit has just been given new powers to arrest and detain suspects.
Until now they were mainly a counselling and advice service.
Vilma Mehra leads a police unit dealing with crimes against women
But the task is overwhelming.
Delhi has a population of 14 million; the Crime Women Cell has one van to answer calls.
It can take two hours to get to the other side of the city and they rely on co-operation from a police force that is riddled with corruption and inefficiency.
The pattern is familiar: a woman is burned to death in her kitchen; the police arrive; the family of the husband claim it is a "cooking stove" accident; the police are assisted towards this conclusion with a wad of rupees.
By the time the Crime Women Cell has weaved its way through the traffic jams and potholes of Delhi it is a done deal.
Giving or receiving any dowry of more than 7,000 rupees (£90/US$150) is a crime in India.
But it is a law that is universally ignored and it is a problem that leads to the abuse and degradation, even the death, of women.
Tihar Jail in Delhi is the largest prison in Asia
Despite the corruption and the bureaucracy, hundreds are convicted of dowry crime every year.
The main prison in Delhi, Tihar Jail, has a "mother-in-law" cell block, set aside exclusively for women who have killed or harassed their daughters-in-law.
It is full of elderly women, some of whom are serving 20-year sentences for murder.
Dowries are not going away. They are deeply ingrained in Indian society and are growing stronger, and the law prohibiting them is treated with contempt.
The police are powerless to stop it and even communities such as Muslims, who never used to give dowries, are now doing so with the inevitable sinister consequences.
Correspondent: Dowry Law was broadcast on Sunday, 16 November, 2003 at 1915 GMT on BBC Two.