December 20, 2015


[Each year, nearly 10 million prospective husbands and wives register on the sites, which have become the first option for many families who can no longer rely on the neighborhood priest or the friendly aunt to provide suitable matches in India’s rapidly urbanizing society.]


A young Indian couple on a date. (iStock)
 After browsing a matrimonial website for months, 26-year-old Svati Maddur finally found a good “on paper” match. He was 29 and a marketing executive for a big multinational company. They exchanged phone numbers.
“We began chatting on Whats App. He kept asking me for more and more photographs. Then he asked, ‘What are you wearing right now?’” recalled Maddur. “It was creepy. There are men on these matrimonial sites who are just looking for an affair, not for marriage.”
So she blocked him.
Maddur is not alone. Scores of women have complained that married men are posing as single on these sites, that many lie about their job, income and age, and that they are using the sites just to hook up with women with no intention of getting married, officials say.
With incidents of fraud growing, the government wants the popular portals to not only verify the identity of the men who register, but also to determine whether their intentions are honorable.
Operators of India’s booming online matrimonial industry — which has taken over the country’s traditional system of arranged marriages in the past 15 years — say that such measures are not practical and can stifle business.
“The number of complaints the government has received about this is huge. Men are using these matrimonial websites for dating, for harassing. They make inappropriate comments,” said Maneka Gandhi, India’s minister for women and child development. “There are so many women who register on these sites and advertise their status. We need to introduce measures that make these women feel more secure.”
Each year, nearly 10 million prospective husbands and wives register on the sites, which have become the first option for many families who can no longer rely on the neighborhood priest or the friendly aunt to provide suitable matches in India’s rapidly urbanizing society.
“As traditional close-knit, caste-formed communities broke down, people moved to newer cities and jobs, joint families split up. It was no longer possible to cut, copy, paste the old model of arranged marriages into the new world,” said Ira Trivedi, author of “India in Love.” Thus, “matrimonial sites filled this gap well.”
Despite sweeping changes in Indian society, analysts are puzzled by how the tradition of arranged marriages persists so strongly.
A 2013 survey found that almost 75 percent of young Indians still prefer marriages arranged by their parents.
Whether advertised through Sunday classifieds or matrimonial sites, finding a partner has always been a family business in India. The most sought-after bride is one who is demure, traditional, light-skinned and respectful, as well as educated and working. The groom is a catch if he works for a multinational company or is an engineer, doctor or bureaucrat. If he works abroad, he scores higher. The man and woman have to be from the same caste and religion, and horoscopes will be matched by an astrologer.
But the old system of picking trustworthy matches that existed in communities that were once close-knit does not work as well in cyberspace.
Last month, Gandhi convened a panel of officials from three ministries and portal owners to draft new safety guidelines to regulate the $60 million industry. Some of the measures discussed included prominently declaring that these are not dating sites; making it mandatory to upload the government’s biometric identity number as verification; and requiring men to answer a questionnaire to assess whether they really intend to marry and how soon.
“Unfortunately, the portals do not see it as their responsibility,” Gandhi said. “Their attitude is, once you register, you are on your own.”
The portal operators say they already follow a two-step validation process by asking for a cellphone number and email address.
Forcing people to upload government-validated identity documents — such as a voter card, biometric number or driver’s license — would be “impractical,” said an executive of one matrimonial site, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize the ongoing discussions with the government.
Many people in India do not have scanners and smartphones to upload the documents, he said, and many lack even valid government identity documents.
Questionnaires about a person’s intention to marry will not work, he said. “Many people browse for months before they agree to meet someone. We can’t ask them how soon they will marry. Many profiles are managed by parents who may say immediately, but their daughters and sons may want to delay,” he said.
Matrimonial sites say they are notresponsible for how their members behave when they engage with each other offline.
But fraud abounds in the online matrimonial universe.
Last year, Mumbai police arrested a 27-year-old man who routinely uploaded pictures of a good-looking friend on his profile and lied about his parents’ business and his own job. He would chat and charm prospective brides, befriend them and then cook up a sob story about a stolen debit card or a family health crisis and say that he needed an urgent loan.
The uncertainty in the online matrimonial world is driving some families back to the traditional matchmaking bureaus, which conduct personalized checks on the families, relatives, friends and colleagues.
Some even hire detectives to investigate the lives of prospective matches.
In the big cities, some independent working women find the family presence in the matrimonial sites stifling.
“The matrimonial sites are very old-school. The men’s parents talk down, they are very judgmental, there is pressure on you to prove you are the ideal daughter-in-law,” said Aprajita Virmani, a 30-year-old digital marketing professional. “I want to approach men on a more equal footing, minus the parents. So I am going to try out a dating app.”
In the past year, apps such as Tinder have made inroads into Indian cities.
But safety is a bigger factor on dating sites., a new Indian dating app, checks male members’ Facebook newsfeeds, verifies their marital status, counts their friends on Facebook, seeks social endorsements and even pings a government database to spot any criminal acts.
“Dating apps in the Indian cultural context will work only if women are convinced that the men have been checked and declared safe,” said Sachin Bhatia, TrulyMadly’s co-founder. He said matrimonial sites in their current form will go out of business in a decade.
“Technology, communication and women’s choices are changing very fast,” he said.
Meanwhile, Maddur has found a safety measure that she trusts: She told her father about the creepy caller.
“Now my father handles my account and thoroughly screens the men before I interact with them,” she said with a laugh.
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@ The Washington Post