Geographies in Depth

In India, restricted access to water could damage your marriage prospects

A Hindu devotee holds offerings as she worships the Sun God in the waters of a pond during the religious festival of Chhat Puja in Kolkata, November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - S1AEULKWEGAA

The water shortages also heavily impacts social life as well as health. Image: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Annie Banerji
South Asia Corrospondent, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Geographies in Depth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Water is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Ram Hetu was sure his 16th proposal would finally secure him a wife, but it didn't - just like all his other attempts to find a partner in central India's Bundelkhand region, where years of drought and water scarcity are keeping possible brides at bay.

Wells have run dry across the semi-arid region, with scant rains forcing some villagers to walk miles for water and pushing others to migrate to cities in search of work, as harvests fall.

But the drought also has more pernicious consequences.

In towns and villages across sparsely populated Bundelkhand, home to 20 million people, parents of would-be brides are dismissing the overtures of hopeful suitors, fearing a betrothal could land them in financial ruin.

"The parents usually tell me 'no water, no daughter'," said Hetu, 42, a farm labourer who earns 4,000 rupees ($58) a month.

"In January, one father said 'maybe' and immediately I started daydreaming about my wedding."

But calls to his would-be father-in-law went unanswered.

"Parents fear their girls will spend the rest of their days fetching water," Hetu said in his village of Baragaon, known for growing wheat, barley and chickpea.

His story is echoed by other men from Bundelkhand who told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that years of drought had ruined their crops and trapped them in bachelorhood.

It is just one of many social impacts linked to climate change in a country increasingly hit by extreme heat, rising sea levels, frequent floods and powerful cyclones.

"The effects of climate change are dangerous," said Sanjay Singh, secretary of Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, a group working to empower rural communities.

"If efforts aren't made while we still have time, then existing problems of unemployment, starvation (and) malnutrition will only become more severe," he added.

Image: World Resources Institute

India's northern areas were lashed by monsoon rains and fatal floods in recent weeks but dry spells have gripped other parts, including the city of Chennai which was plunged into crisis in June when its four main water reservoirs ran dry.

Normally Bundelkhand, blighted by 13 episodes of drought in the last two decades, receives 52 days of rainfall a year. But the number of days has more than halved since 2014, according to Skymet Weather, a private weather forecasting agency.

"Water is everything. It is a currency. If you have it, you have everything, including a wife. If not, you have nothing," said Dhaniram Aherwal, head of Bangaon village's water council.

Have you read?

Urban migration

Small, rain-dependent farms growing wheat, millet and pulses are the mainstay of Bundelkhand's cash-based economy.

When rains fail and crops perish, incomes and marriage prospects suffer, prompting waves of migration to nearby cities.

Two in five people in rural Bundelkhand have become urban migrants over the last decade, according to Keshav Singh, an environmentalist at the India Water Portal website.

Bad water management and poor policies are to blame, said Singh, who is also part of the Bundelkhand Water Forum, a coalition of local organisations.

"If things continue this way, Bundelkhand will be known as a land of bachelors," he said.

Empty homes with metal locks on front doors are a common sight.

At least 100 people have left Baragaon - Hetu's village of about 8,000 people - so far this year, said Ramadhar Nishad, a local administrative chief.

Villagers said nearly 200 pack up and leave each year, either temporarily or permanently.

"There have been no weddings here for at least two years," said Nishad, standing outside a derelict wedding hall strewn with cow dung.


Not everyone heads to the city. Farmer suicides over failed crops and crippling debt have left "drought orphans" and widows, who often fall prey to traffickers looking to push them into prostitution, said Singh.

And with so many men desperately seeking wives, traffickers find opportunities to lure prospective brides into the region from other states, he and other activists said.

In water-scarce Chhatarpur district, scores of men have married women from nearby Odisha state.

Three women told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that a "tout" found them and promised a perfect match - a man with land and a concrete house with an adequate water supply.

"But that wasn't the case. Back home, water came from taps. Here it is all hand pumps. Water tankers don't come ... No one had told me that things were so bad," said Rina Pal, 30, who came to Chaukheda village 12 years ago.

Child marriage is also rife, according to locals.

Many young girls never go to school because of costly tuition fees, they said.

Instead, parents send them to fetch water. Viewed as a financial burden, they are married off as young as 12.

Seema Aherwal, a bride at 18, said men failed to understand how unattractive Bundelkhand villages could be for women.

"You can't blame women. It's terrible here. Water dictates life - when to eat, sleep, bathe - everything," said Aherwal, now 28 and planning to move her family to Delhi after living in Bangaon for a decade.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Geographies in DepthEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

What is desertification and why is it important to understand?

Andrea Willige

April 23, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum