A bench of Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, which criminalised sex with a minor wife in a landmark verdict yesterday, referred to a study conducted on child marriages, based on 2011 census.
"It was found that three per cent girls in the age group of 10 to 14 years were got married and about 20 per cent girls were married before attaining the age of 19 years.
"Unfortunately, this report deals with girls below the age of 19 years and not 18 years, but the report does indicate that more than 20 per cent girls in this country are married before attaining the age of 18 years. Therefore, more than one out of every 5 marriages violates provisions of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and the Hindu Marriage Act," it said.
It also referred to a National Family Health Survey report revealing that 26.8 per cent women were married before 18 years.
The figure, however, has come down from the year 2005-06 when the precentage was as high as 47.4.
"The counter affidavit of Union of India refers to the National Family Health Survey (of 2005) in which it is stated that 46 per cent of women in India between the ages of 18 and 29 years were married before the age of 18 years.
"It is also estimated, interestingly but disturbingly, that there are about 23 million child brides in the country," Justice Lokur said in his judgement.
Concurring with Justice Lokur's view, Justice Gupta, who wrote a separate concurring judgement, said the figures were "startling".
The report also revealed that in urban areas, the percentage was 17.5 while in rural areas it was 31.5 per cent.
As per the NFHS 2015-16, nearly 8 per cent girls between 15-19 years of age were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey.
As per the data, 13 per cent under-18 girls in Delhi were married which has come down from 22.7 per cent recorded in 2005-06.
The top court also expressed concern over the health of the girl child saying a child bride is doubly prone to health problems than a grown up woman.
"The World Health Organisation, in a Report dealing with the issue of child brides found that though 11 per cent of the births worldwide are amongst adolescents, they account for 23 per cent of the overall burden of diseases. Therefore, a child bride is more than doubly prone to health problems than a grown up woman," it said.
It also referred to the National Plan of Action for Children, 2016, saying that the government of India itself has recognised the high rate of child marriages prevalent in the country which violates the basic rights of health, development and protection of the child.
"A perusal of the various reports and data placed before us clearly shows that marriage of the child not only violates the human rights of a child but also affects the health of the child," the bench said.