Shiv Singh Dangi stepped into adulthood barely a year ago, but is already well-acquainted with married life: he tied the knot when he was 12, with Manju, who was only 10 then.
Dangi, a resident of Badbeli village in Rajgarh district of Madhya Pradesh, is only one among several cases of child marriage. Ramdayal, 15, a student of Class 9, who lives in the same village, was married to Dapu, a year younger than him, about three years ago.
Villagers admit that in the next one month, at least six girls and two boys - six of them between 14 and 16 -would enter married life.
The phenomenon of child marriage is also prevalent in Sonkachch village in Biaora block, about 60km from Badbeli, where hordes of boys from the Dangi community got hitched at a mass marriage ceremony in all their traditional finery, flaunting garlands of currency, on April 23.
While the organisers of the mass wedding ceremony insisted that those who tied the knot had attained the legal age of marriage, the faces of the youngsters belied the claims.
With the grooms being underage, it was apparent that their brides were even younger. A boy from Gorakhpura village, who was married at the same ceremony, admitted that he had dropped out of school when he was in Class 9. This puts his age at 17 or 18 years.
Child marriages are not a recent phenomenon here. The Annual Health Survey (2010-11) released in 2012 reveals that 25.9% of males in rural parts of the state, with 36.8% of them from Rajgarh district, got married before attaining the legal marriageable age of 21. Also, 17.2% girls in the rural areas - 30.4% of them from Rajgarh - tied the knot before turning 18.
Even as illegal marriages gain widespread social acceptance, the state government's campaign against this practice is failing. Few in Rajgarh district, including those in the department of women and child development, who are tasked with carrying out the 11-week campaign from February 6 to May 20, are aware of it.
The ignorance is apparent when Tej Singh, sarpanch of Pipalbe village in Rajgarh block of the district, said he had no idea of the department's directive to sarpanches that they were to compile a list of unmarried girls below 18 years aimed at monitoring cases of child marriage.
"We had received a letter last year during this time, asking us to keep an eye on the situation, but we have received no such instructions this year," he added. He claimed there were no such underage marriages happening in his village.
With Akshaya Tritiya, considered an auspicious time for solemnising marriages, falling on May 13, a large number of youngsters are again set to get hitched.
At the mass marriage ceremony in Sonkachch, a senior organiser too said he was unaware of the government's action plan that involves raising awareness at the village level, meetings of collectors with public representatives, religious and social groups, renowned citizens as well as other interventions. He claimed that age certificates of prospective brides and grooms had been studied before allowing them to get married.
One of the few people who seemed to be know anything about the action plan was anganwadi worker Megha Kunwar in Badbeli village. She said department officials had visited the village recently to enquire about impending marriages. "Efforts are on to counsel families," she added. But even she lacked complete knowledge of the plan although all anganwadi workers in the vicinity were ordered during a meeting in February to monitor child marriages, she said.
Reacting to this level of ignorance and the impunity with which child marriages were taking place, Kalpana Srivastava, commissioner (women empowerment) in the department told this reporter that it was good he had provided the information. "We will follow it up," she added
"Rajgarh is a sensitive district," she said. "We are constantly monitoring it. There is no report yet about any possible underage marriages. However, we are alert. The action plan is not a new step - such activities are taken up every year. The emphasis is on prevention."
Unicef field officer for the state Tania Golder said: "Child marriage is a violation of child rights. It is still a sad reality in India. Law needs to be enforced and an efficient monitoring system should be in place during the whole year to prevent child marriages. Focus should also be on changing communities' mindset on the issue, by making them understand the negative impact it has on child growth."
MP's poor factsheet