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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
India in low caste marriage plan
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Wedding couple
The government wants to encourage inter caste marriages
The Indian government has suggested financial incentives of $1,100 should be offered to people who marry members of the lowest Hindu castes.

Many Indian states already pay money to those who marry Hindus from the lowest castes who are also called dalits.

But the amount differs from state to state - in Gujarat a couple gets the full $1,100 (50,000 rupees) - whereas in West Bengal state the amount is $45.

The government says it now wants the sum to be the same throughout India.

Break barriers

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which bears half the cost of the payment, has written to all the states asking them to standardise the minimum amount to $1,100.

"I am very keen on this and I have asked all the state governments to back to me," Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Meira Kumar told the BBC.

Social Justice Minister Meira Kumar
This is not the only way to end the caste discrimination, but one has to start somewhere
Social Justice Minister Meira Kumar

Ministry officials say encouraging such marriages will ultimately break down caste barriers.

They have organised a two-day conference of the state social welfare secretaries in Delhi to discuss the issue.

"In our caste-ridden society if someone breaks out of the mould and marries outside of the caste, we want to give them this money as a token of our appreciation. We want to make an example of them so that others will follow them," Ms Kumar said.

She said that inter-caste marriages do happen around the country, but "we want it to grow so much that one day no can say what caste they belong to".

'Material incentives'

Many say such a proposal is easy to suggest but hard to implement.

Caste is deeply rooted in Indian society and those marrying outside their caste are often ostracised by their family and the wider community.

Low caste Hindus show their bandages
Low caste Hindus complain of frequent discrimination

Delhi-based sociologist Radhika Chopra said that while $1,100 is not a huge amount, it may help a couple to set up a house.

She said that the government has always intervened to determine the shape and structure of the family.

"They have a rather simplistic view that material incentives always work and there is evidence that monetary incentives have worked in the past in reducing female foeticide or persuading people to adopt family planning measures," Ms Chopra said.

Ministry officials hope the same incentives will work in reducing caste barriers too.

"We don't know how many people marry across caste. Only a fraction of all marriages are registered and this exercise will give us an opportunity to document the number of inter-caste marriages taking place in the country," a senior official said.

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