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Vox Populi

The People speak: How the common Indian is suffering from inflation

Print edition : Jun 17, 2022 T+T-

The People speak: How the common Indian is suffering from inflation

At Azadpur Mandi,  Asia’s largest wholesale vegetable market, New Delhi, on May 12.

At Azadpur Mandi, Asia’s largest wholesale vegetable market, New Delhi, on May 12. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Across the country, the little dreams and hopes harboured by the urban and rural poor are crumbling in the face of the remorseless march of inflation.

In April, retail inflation based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) hit 7.79 per cent. This is the highest it has been in eight years.

For the lucky few in India, this is simply a number on a graph, an abstract data point that can be the subject of conversations in elegant drawing rooms. For the not-so-lucky, it is the mathematical representation of a silent everyday despair that gnaws at resilience, strips away dignity, erases dreams and hopes. From villages to small towns to metropolises, inflation has not spared anybody. The same story is told in a million voices, each unique in its private despair but each sharing the same slow fading of hope.

“I have never been in debt before, but now I may have to consider loans… How will I pay back?”

- Gangaram Fondke, metal work fabricator, Mumbai
“I have never been in debt before, but now I may have to consider loans… How will I pay back?” - Gangaram Fondke, metal work fabricator, Mumbai | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The past two years have seen the country ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, repeated lockdowns, the escalating cost of petrol, diesel and cooking gas, and ever-rising prices of food and essential commodities. But the initial sparks of anger have long turned to resignation. “ Kamai hai lekin badhti mehengai aage aage badh rahi hai. Khana, petrol, gas… is pe hi kharcha hota hai garibon ka. Sirf itna hi. Sarkar ko yeh nahi dikta kya. (We earn but inflation is overtaking our earnings. Food, petrol, gas, this is what the poor spend on. Just this. Doesn’t the government see this),” said Gangaram Fondke, a metal work fabricator who lives in a shack in a slum in central Mumbai’s Sewri.

As Sujoy Chakraborty, professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University told Frontline, “High retail inflation will always hurt the poor and lower middle class disproportionately, as it affects the price of essential commodities that are consumed by all.”

The other common indices of living costs—education, clothing, housing, healthcare—are luxuries that are out of the reach of people like Fondke. The rising LPG cost is a nightmare because the family uses it not just for cooking but for Fondke’s metal fabrication work. They are now trying to economise. “My wife uses our old kerosene stove to save gas. We no longer get kerosene on our ration card; we buy it on the black market. It’s about Rs.100 a litre and that is if we can get it,” said Fondke. He used to buy new metal sheets every year. This year, he is dependent almost entirely on last year’s stock and hopes that the seth (customer) for whom he is doing the fabrication work will spare him a few sheets from his factory.

“Iron is now about Rs.53 a kilo,” said Fondke, “and the cheapest steel is about Rs.70 a kilo. This automatically means that customers are fewer. People don’t want anything new made. It’s a strange situation. There is enough work but people hesitate to give it because they themselves are going slow on expenses. And if they don’t commission jobs, people like me suffer.” Profit margins have always been thin in Fondke’s line of work, but with the rising cost of raw materials, the fabricator now sees the spectre of debt looming before him. “I have never been in debt before, but now I may have to consider loans… How will I pay back?” He is worried because he no longer has a village home where he can send his family. “There’s always shelter for a single man. It is families one has to worry about,” he said.

“We now pay a rent of Rs.5,000 for the same single-room shanty that cost us Rs.2,500 three years back. The landlord says his costs have gone up, but our wages have remained the same…”

- Komalamma, conservancy worker, Chennai 
“We now pay a rent of Rs.5,000 for the same single-room shanty that cost us Rs.2,500 three years back. The landlord says his costs have gone up, but our wages have remained the same…” - Komalamma, conservancy worker, Chennai  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

From the west to the south, people are struggling to stay afloat. Komalamma, 45, is a conservancy worker in Chennai. She supports herself and her two teenaged children on a monthly income of Rs.10,500. Work—segregating household waste at a collection point—starts at the crack of dawn and continues for eight hours. She took up the job after her husband’s death a few years ago. But with every passing day, life is getting more difficult. Komalamma does not understand the concept of inflation; all she knows is that the steep hike in prices of essentials such as vegetables and groceries is causing great suffering. “I spend nearly Rs.50 a day on fuel, Rs.100 on vegetables, Rs.100 on groceries. We need this just to survive. As prices go up, we have cut back even on these...,” she said. Adding to her burden, house rents in Chennai have increased by 20-40 per cent after the pandemic. Today, nearly 50 per cent of Komalamma’s monthly income goes on rent. “It was Rs.2,500 some three years back. Now we pay Rs.5,000 for the same single-room shanty with a common toilet. The landlord said his costs have gone up, but our wages have remained the same…”

“We now pay Rs.100 a kg for tomatoes and Rs.65 a kg for potatoes. The rise in prices is not making any difference to the rich. Why should the poor bear the brunt?”

- Sabira Begum, cook, Bengaluru 
“We now pay Rs.100 a kg for tomatoes and Rs.65 a kg for potatoes. The rise in prices is not making any difference to the rich. Why should the poor bear the brunt?” - Sabira Begum, cook, Bengaluru  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

In neighbouring Karnataka, Sabira Begum, 58, says she has not been receiving her widow’s pension for the past four months. It is getting difficult for her and her three dependent daughters to get by on just the Rs.10,000 she earns a month working as a cook. “We now pay Rs.100 a kg for tomatoes and Rs.65 a kg for potatoes. Vegetables are unaffordable; gas prices have gone up, it is almost Rs.1,000 for a cylinder. Does this seem reasonable? The rise in prices is not making any difference to the rich. Why should the poor bear the brunt?” she asked.

“Why is the burden only upon us? Why can’t the government do something? If prices keep rising, how are we to live?”

- Anita, 36, fruit-seller in Bengaluru
“Why is the burden only upon us? Why can’t the government do something? If prices keep rising, how are we to live?” - Anita, 36, fruit-seller in Bengaluru | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Anita, 36, a fruit-seller in Bengaluru, lost her husband two years ago and has since brought up her young child alone. “There are days when I don’t sell enough fruits and have to soothe my son with just a meal of boiled rice. I worry if I will be able to give him a good life,” she said. Inflation has hit her hard. “I always try to keep exotic fruits in my stall, but even the rich are skimping now. They never haggled before on the price of dragon fruit but now they do,” Anita said. Anger simmers beneath her despair: “Why is the burden only upon us? Why can’t the government do something? If prices keep rising, how are we to live? Sometimes I wonder if it’s better to die!”

Across the country, the little dreams and hopes harboured by the urban poor are crumbling in the face of the remorseless march of inflation. Vikas, a native of Deoria in Uttar Pradesh, got married just before the onset of the pandemic. He had a job in a two-wheeler manufacturing facility and things looked promising. But in the recession that followed the lockdown, he lost his job and then had to move out of the family home and live separately with his wife. Vikas now works as a daily labourer. He believes that people like him have been hit the hardest by the price rise. “Earlier, we got a dehari (daily wage) of Rs. 700-800. Now it is Rs. 300-400,” he said. He shrugged, then sullenly said: “The very first years of my marriage have been spoilt by COVID-19, the price rise, and the constant wrangling at home over my meagre earnings.”

Near Azadpur metro station in north Delhi, a lane veers off to Asia’s largest wholesale market for fruits and vegetables. But there are hardly any signs of flourishing business here. The open kiosks are separated by iron pillars that prop up tin and plastic sheets to keep off the blazing sun. Thin, scruffy loaders jostle for space as the produce trucks begin to pull in. Sales at Azadpur mandi have dropped by half in the past few months. Jagmohan, who sells cauliflowers, brinjals and taro roots, said, “I was selling 200 nag of vegetables a day, now I consider myself lucky if I am able to sell 100-130 nag [one nag is 50 kg].” His thin frame and scraggly grey beard make him look older than his 62 years. He says his net profit after accounting for labour, transportation and other costs, has dropped from Rs.20,000-25,000 to Rs.10,000-12,000 a month. For Ambika Paswan, who sells vegetables from a pavement at Gulabi Bagh in central Delhi, an income of Rs.750-1,000 a day has become Rs.300-400 a day. His rent alone is Rs.5,000 a month. His four daughters and three sons go to a government school. “If things don’t improve, I will have to ask them to find odd jobs,” he said.

Bikes remain unused as petrol prices soar. A household in Bardhaman, West Bengal.
Bikes remain unused as petrol prices soar. A household in Bardhaman, West Bengal. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

It is the same story further east. Kora Para is a decrepit shanty town in Bardhaman, West Bengal. People here literally live in darkness because for several months they have not been able to afford the electricity bills. In the squalor and unbearable heat of summer, children have been falling ill. The adults say there are barely any jobs to be had, and that many of the men have left town in search of work. Sumi Kora, 20, remembers a time not long ago when she and her family lived in relative comfort, at least not going hungry. “Now, we only eat dal and potato,” she said. In her dark kitchen, a silver-coloured gas stove, which came free through the much-hyped Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, has sat unused for the last four months, glinting as if in mockery at the promise of better days. Several of Sumi’s neighbours have fallen into a debt trap after borrowing at exorbitant rates from moneylenders. Ananta and Shibani Kora, a couple who had lived here all their lives, were forced to sell their little shack to pay off debts and leave the area. Like Fondke in Mumbai, Sonamuri Kora, 60, also thinks that life would perhaps have been easier had she lived in a village. “In the village, one can borrow money and work off the debt. In the city, there is no escaping the clutches of hunger,” she said.

Rural impact

Yet, Sonamuri and Gangaram’s notion that they might have been better off in the village is not borne out by the scenario in rural India. Bleak as the situation is for the urban poor, research reports point to the inflation having hit rural India harder than urban India, with prices ruling higher in the former from January till April.

According to a report by research firm CareEdge in May, “Spike in CPI inflation has been more pronounced in rural India as the rural basket gives more weightage to food items. As a result, rural inflation has been outpacing that in urban areas since January 2022. From 3.75 per cent in April last year, inflation in rural regions has more than doubled to 8.38 per cent in April 2022.” Among the States where rural retail inflation hit double figures in April were West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Haryana. According to figures presented by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the rural inflation rate in West Bengal at 10.53 per cent in April was the highest in the country; followed by Telangana (10.26), Haryana (10.25), and Madhya Pradesh (10.12). In fact, in only five states—Karnataka, Kerala, Bihar, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh—was rural inflation lower than urban inflation.

Firewood stockpiled in a household in Kora Para, Bardhaman, West Bengal. With cooking gas at over Rs.1,000 a cylinder and firewood costing Rs.60 a kg, there is a desperate scramble for anything that people can lay their hands on.
Firewood stockpiled in a household in Kora Para, Bardhaman, West Bengal. With cooking gas at over Rs.1,000 a cylinder and firewood costing Rs.60 a kg, there is a desperate scramble for anything that people can lay their hands on. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

It is not an uncommon sight in rural Bengal today to find a cluster of women standing around a tree as it is being cut down. With cooking gas at over Rs.1,000 a cylinder and firewood costing Rs.60 a kg, there is a desperate scramble for anything they can lay their hands on. When we met Mantubala Das, 68, of Talit Daspara village in Bardhaman district, she was using the bits of wood her daughter-in-law had managed to collect to cook a meal under the oppressive midday sun. Her husband died some years ago, and she lives with her son Subhas, a sharecropper, his wife, and their two teenage sons. They were poor to begin with; the inflation has wreaked further havoc. The tube well outside their mud house has been lying unused for several months because they cannot afford to repair it. Mantubala’s elder grandson has been taken out of school to find odd jobs and help the family. “Everything necessary for people like us to survive is now out of our means. I feel I too should do something to bring home money, but I don’t know what I can do,” said the frail Mantubala.

“Everything necessary for people like us to survive is now out of our means. I don’t know what I can do to bring home money”

- Mantubala Das, Talit Daspara village, West Bengal
“Everything necessary for people like us to survive is now out of our means. I don’t know what I can do to bring home money” - Mantubala Das, Talit Daspara village, West Bengal | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Most of the families living in Talit Daspara village are indigent sharecroppers; for them agriculture itself has become financially unviable. Kartik Das, 65, works as a sharecropper on 12 bighas of land (one bigha is around 0.2 acre). He runs a loss of over Rs.1,000 per bigha, mainly because he has to hand over a percentage of the produce to the land owner. “The cost of cultivating one bigha is around Rs.11,000 (including labour wages), for which I get a return of around Rs.13,600. But I have to give a share of the produce worth around Rs.3,600 to the landowner. I make a loss of around Rs.1,000, if not more,” he said. He prides himself on never having borrowed all his life, but now fears that may change.

The entire economy of Talit Daspara village has been battered by the inflation. Sumitra Das, 65, has closed the little kirana store she used to run because she cannot afford to buy stocks. “People in the village have stopped buying anything that is not absolutely essential,” she said. “We ration even food these days, and we can’t think about new clothes for the children.” Sumitra’s son, Kalasona Das, is a carpenter. His earnings have slumped drastically since people don’t spend money on woodwork. Ananda Kumar Das, the owner of the other kirana store in the village, said that sales are less than half of what they were before 2020. “People cannot even afford to buy candy for their children,” he said.

“People cannot even afford to buy candy for their children...”

- Ananda Kumar Das, petty shopkeeper, Talit Daspara village, West Bengal
“People cannot even afford to buy candy for their children...” - Ananda Kumar Das, petty shopkeeper, Talit Daspara village, West Bengal | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Middle class mauled

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy classifies the lower middle-class as households with an income between Rs.1,00,000 and Rs.2,00,000 a month. For this class, it is turning out to be a long and painful exercise of constantly adjusting to the downward slide in standards of living. The COVID-19 lockdown precipitated a recession which shrunk the GDP by more than 24 per cent in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 fiscal. Pay cuts and job losses followed. Loan EMIs, rents and other commitments forced many among the middle-class to use up their savings. According to Professor Chakraborty, the short-term impact of the inflation on the lower middle-class will be particularly severe. “The middle-class and the lower middle-class consume a lot more tradable and non-primary goods than the poor. With the prices of such goods going up, these two classes will have to make more changes in their lives. Comparatively, the consumption pattern of the poor is more stable, though more deprived. The change in lifestyles of the middle-class will be quite harsh,” said Chakraborty.

In Mumbai, Prakash Katkera, 46, finds himself going down that economic spiral. Among the first Uber drivers when the company launched operations in India in 2013, he was doing so well by 2015 that he took a Rs. 9.5 lakh loan to buy his own car. Six years later, he has neither job nor car. “For three years, I did extremely well. Even after paying the monthly EMIs of Rs. 20,140, I made a substantial income. The trouble started when diesel prices went up to Rs. 63 in 2018; my overheads shot up. Uber drivers went on strike. The company gave us some short-term relief but it hardly helped. I converted my car to CNG, but even those prices increased,” said Katera. As the situation deteriorated, in December 2019 the bank seized his car; he had already repaid half the loan. “It was very difficult. I would work between 12 and 16 hours a day and still not make enough.” Then, in March 2020, the pandemic put Katera out of work overnight, with a family of five—three daughters, wife and mother—to support. He now struggles to make ends meet.

People in this economic class are also acutely conscious of their change in social bracketing. Biswanath, 36, a physiotherapist, masseur and trainer in Kolkata, ruefully pointed out that before the pandemic he belonged to the middle class but now he is lower middle class. “If I earn Rs.30,000 today, my monthly expenditure is Rs.35,000,” he said. “I spend around Rs.7,500 on petrol alone. Another Rs.10,000 on policy premiums, EMIs, etc; Rs.6,000 on fish alone. Then there are expenses like school fees. I am spending more than I earn,” he said. Two years ago, petrol worth Rs.150 would last him more than a day, now he spends Rs. 250 a day on fuel. “A tin of refined oil was Rs.1,600 before the pandemic; today it costs Rs 2,800. The rice I bought for Rs.35 a kilo today costs Rs.48. The lower middle-class is being slowly crushed to death,” he said. Like every family around him, Biswanath’s too makes constant adjustments just to make do. “I used to have chicken at least four times a week. Today, with chicken at Rs.165-180 a kg, we can afford it only once a week. We used to eat out once a week; now we almost never do.” Bishwanath has pawned some of his wife’s jewellery.

“My clients have suddenly become careful with money...”

- Raju, puppeteer, Delhi 
“My clients have suddenly become careful with money...” - Raju, puppeteer, Delhi  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

In Delhi, Raju, a puppeteer, has seen his earnings plunge to Rs.10,000 a month, a third of what he used to earn before. Raju used to do 20-40 shows a month; now it is two to five shows. “My clients have suddenly become careful with money,” said Raju, who leads a team of 12. His clients once included names like Max Foundation, Yes Bank, and PVR. He frequently performed in schools, too, but inflation has changed it all.

“More than equipment and post-production costs, it’s transportation costs that are a strain” 

- Leslie Carvalho, independent film-maker, Bengaluru
“More than equipment and post-production costs, it’s transportation costs that are a strain”  - Leslie Carvalho, independent film-maker, Bengaluru | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The arts are hard hit. Leslie Carvalho, 60, an independent film-maker based in Bengaluru, pointed out that his already delayed feature film project is now foundering. “More than equipment and post-production costs like editing studios, it’s transportation costs that are a strain,” he said. Then there is the worry of distribution costs and showcasing the work. Carvalho is hopeful that his film will find a place on one of the many digital platforms.

Whether Carvalho or Komalamma, they all have hope. But hope is not enough. To lead just an ordinary life, what they need is purchasing power.

With reports from Lyla Bavadam, Anupama Katakam, Ilangovan Rajasekaran, Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed, and Anando Bhakto.