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'Life has never been so bad'
Shobha Warrier in Chennai
February 26, 2007

InflationEven as India puts up an impressive economic performance that is the toast of the world, let us not lose sight of the fact that there is another index that is slowly creeping up as well -- cost of living, commonly known as inflation.

In the face of weekly bald statistics that say inflation is going up, decided to find out from ordinary people across the country how their lives have been affected by the price rise:

Part 1: We cannot stop buying

Name: Vanaja

Occupation: Maid

Location: Chennai

Today, Vanaja has several questions but she does not know whom to ask.

She works as a maid in three houses and gets a monthly income of Rs 1,800 but she takes home only less than Rs 1,000 as she has taken advances from everyone.

Thanks to globalisation, her husband, a micro level trader involved in small business has not much work these days. He used to supply goods bought from the main market at the Parry's Corner in Chennai to small shops in the neighbourhood. With big super markets springing up everywhere, these small shops have shut shop, one by one. Now, there are only a handful of corner shops and the shopkeepers themselves go to the main market as they cannot afford to have a middleman. The sufferers of course are people like Vanaja's husband.

Inflation-Vanaja"All those who were into small business like my husband have no work these days. There was a time when he used to give me Rs 100 every day to buy food. Now, he finds it difficult to give me even Rs 50. How can one buy rice, vegetables, milk, tea, etc for a household of five with just fifty rupees?" asks Vanaja.

It is not that she is the only earning member in her house; two of her daughters are also working, one as a maid and the other as a salesgirl in a cloth store. With the girls' income, her husband pays the interest on his borrowings. The debt never gets paid, as they can afford to pay back only the interest. "Living in a city like Chennai has many disadvantages too. We pay Rs 1,000 as rent for the one room we live in. My salary goes to pay the rent and my daughters' salary in paying the interest. We run the house daily with the fifty rupees my husband gives me. Tell me how you expect us to have a decent life?" asks the lady.

Till recently she used to have at least three to four glasses of tea everyday because "that sustained her". Now that has stopped. "With the prices of tea, sugar and milk going up, we have decided to have just two half cups of tea every day," she said.

The rice which the family used to buy for Rs 13 a kilo has become so bad that they find it inedible. "We have to pay Rs 16 for better quality of rice. And I need a kilo of it every day."

The family used to buy at least three fourth kilos of vegetables daily so that they could have one vegetable in the morning and one at night but not now. "Vegetables have become so expensive that we buy only the cheapest. Yes, the quantity also has reduced. Now we buy only half a kilo of vegetables but we pay more. Every day my daughter comes back from the vegetable market grumbling. She says we will not be able to eat anything if this trend continues. We used to buy eggs when the prices of vegetables went up. With an egg costing two and a half rupees, how many eggs can we buy?" Vanaja asks.

Till a year ago, the family used to grind batter at home so that the family had dosas or idlis on Sundays. "My children though not very young used to look forward to Sundays when we had dosa or idli in the morning and chicken or fish in the afternoon. Gone are those days. With the price of both chicken and fish going up, we have stopped buying non vegetarian stuff long ago. I have forgotten the day I made dosa at home. With the price of ulutham paruppu (urad dal) sky rocketing to Rs 75, how can we even dream of making dosa at home? Can anyone answer her question?"

However hard the days were, Vanaja was very particular that she celebrated festivals well. She used to borrow money in advance and made delicacies like vada, kesari, etc for all festivals. "For the first time in my life, I did not make kesari for pongal this time. I used to buy a kilo of urad dal and make lots of vadaas every year. That is the one day my children get to eat these things. This year, we bought just a quarter kilo of paruppu and I could give just two vadas to each family member. It was one of the dullest pongals I have ever celebrated."

Here's the final question from Vanaja. "When I saw on television many educated and rich people saying that this is the best time India has had, I felt like laughing. Life has never been so bad for us. When we cannot even buy enough rice, vegetables and oil, what best time are they talking about?"

Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

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