LAHORE, Pakistan - When Mohammad Imran was planning the dinner for his cousin's wedding reception, he had no excuse to trim the pricey menu down from six entrees. Then the government came to his rescue.
Punjab province's newly elected leaders announced that starting this month they would strictly enforce an often-ignored law that limits wedding feasts to one main dish - a measure welcomed by Pakistanis struggling with a sagging economy and rising prices.
At the reception that Imran recently hosted in Lahore, the main dish was mutton karahi. "It saved me around 100,000 rupees," or $2,300, said the 34-year-old real-estate dealer.
He said he had to insist on following the rule over strong opposition from other family members, who didn't want to buck social pressures to put on a lavish feast. "We are passing through a very tough period," Imran said. "Everyone needs savings."
Pakistan's economy is slowing, and increases in global food costs have made matters worse. The price of a staple such as rice has soared 150 percent the last year and wheat flour is in short supply. Middle-class Pakistanis must devote more of their incomes to basics, while the poor struggle to get by.
It was poor families the national government set out to help by enacting in the 1990s a law limiting wedding meals, giving them a way to avoid a cultural burden without feeling humiliated. At one point, only soft drinks or hot drinks like tea were allowed, but court challenges and amendments now permit one entree, accompanied by a few appropriate side dishes such as rice.
The law has been enforced only sporadically, probably because it runs against powerful tradition. Pakistani weddings tend to be grand, colorful affairs, often lasting several days and involving hundreds of guests. Many families start saving for the wedding the day a child is born. Costs vary, but with dowries and jewelry, the wealthy can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a wedding, while poorer families might spend in the thousands.
The cultural pressure to throw a big wedding cuts across the class spectrum in this largely impoverished country of 160 million people, where the World Bank estimates that per-capita income is $800 a year. Families sometimes go into deep debt to pay for a wedding.
Zakir Hussain, a Rawalpindi dealer in scrap bottles, said that a few years ago, he regularly put aside about a third of his income to pay for his older daughter's wedding, which cost about $5,000.
But double-digit inflation is eating away at his wallet. The rising price of rice and flour and other items, he said, means he cannot save any money for his son and younger daughter's future nuptials.
The Punjab government, installed after February's national elections, says it wants to help the poor and is serious about the rule. In a recent newspaper ad, it warned: "One Dish, One Rule for Everyone!" A big X crossed out pictures of the offending items, including large trays of food.
While the law applies to all of Pakistan, the only public announcement of a crackdown has come in Punjab, the most populous province. Information Secretary Nayyar Mahmood said the government would rely on anyone from police to nosy neighbors to report violators, who risk fines of 100,000 to 300,000 rupees ($2,300 to $6,900) and confiscation of the food.
Ayesha Hakki, publisher of bibimagazine.com, an online bridal and fashion portal for South Asians, says the rule will be hard to enforce because of a mentality of "keeping up with the Jafris."
Over the years, families have resorted to ruses to circumvent the rule, including holding the wedding meal in private homes. "People will disguise the event as a birthday," Hakki said, "and then just happen to have a bride and groom show up."