Rajgarh: Lakhan, dressed in a cream suit with a flashy headgear on his forehead and a garland of currency notes around his neck, should have been attending his school and preparing for the ensuing summer break at this time of the year.
But donning the traditional attire of a groom, he was at an ancient temple in Rajgarh district of Madhya Pradesh to seek blessings from the local deity not only for himself but also for a teenaged girl sitting beside him.
Amid the unending stream of people, one could easily miss the girl, decked up in a saree, the traditional Indian dress for women. She refused to take off the veil in spite of the heat. There were several other young people like the couple making a beeline to seek the blessings of the deity.
Lakhan reasoned: "She is too shy and, moreover, it is not good to take off the veil in the presence of family elders."
Lakhan and his bride did not carry any proof of age before getting married at this temple and are visibly underage. So are hundreds of others like them.
Their families travelled from another district of Madhya Pradesh to get them married May 6 this year on the occasion of `Akshya Trithiya`, considered to be an auspicious day for solemnising marriages according to Hindu mythology.
Every year, `Akshay Trithiya` witnesses thousands of child marriages in several parts of the country in blatant violation of the law.
According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the minimum age of marriage in India is 21 years for males and 18 years for females.
The State of the World`s Children 2009 report by Unicef indicates how widespread the violation of this law is in India.
According to the report, 47 percent of India`s women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18, with 56 percent of them in rural areas.
The report also revealed that 40 percent of the world`s child marriages are conducted in India.
According to the National Family Health Survey-III, out of 47.3 percent of women aged 20-24 married by the age of 18, at least 2.6 percent were married before they turned 13, while 22.6 percent were married before they were 16.
Around 44.5 percent were married when they were between 16 and 17.
The survey also highlighted the fact that states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Andra Pradesh continue to witness a high number of child marriages.
Dr. Tania Goldner, chief of the Unicef office in Madhya Pradesh, says: "Child marriage is violation of child rights. Early marriage denies the child of the basic rights to health, nutrition, education, freedom from violence, abuse and exploitation and deprives the child of his or her childhood."
"At least 20 districts of Madhya Pradesh have high incidence of child marriages, particularly Badwani, Rajgarh, Shajapur, Sheopur, Neemuch, Sehore, Mandsaur, Chattarpur and Shivpuri," Nirmala Buch, president of Child Rights Observatory, an NGO working for child rights in the state, told reporters.
Though the state government is making an effort to curb the practice, there is a long way to go, says Buch.
Recently, the Madhya Pradesh government`s department of women and child development and the district administration of Bhopal were able to intervene and stop three child marriages in the Ratibad area, but such success stories are rare.
Meanwhile, Lakhan had been able to convince his family elders to leave the newly wed couple alone at the temple for a minute.
The shy girl, who stopped going to school much earlier, lifted her veil and both of them got their first 6X4 inch `Marriage photograph` clicked for Rs.20. Both of them were smiling in their first picture as a `happily married` couple.