As part of our series Hard Times, we speak to working class families on how the slowdown in the Indian economy is affecting them.

Ainal Haque, 42, claims people in Guwahati are not eating as much fish as they used five years ago. Haque would know – he has been selling fish in the city for more than 15 years.

“People are still eating, of course, people here cannot stop eating fish like that, but much less,” said Haque. “For example, the customer who would buy a kilo earlier is now buying half a kilo.”

Fish is a staple item in the Assamese diet, perhaps the most popular source of protein in the state.

The cutback is reflected in Haque’s income. Till as recently as 2015-’16, Haque said he would earn around Rs 32,000-Rs 35,000 a month. Now, he makes little more than Rs 22,000 in a good month. “Sometimes, it is barely Rs 20,000,” he claimed.

Haque is also certain he knows the reason for people’s waning appetite for fish. “People will only eat fish if they are earning well, but there is no money in the market,” he insisted. “It is not just me who is not doing well, no one is. Everything is connected.”

Sales slump

Kankan Deka of the All Guwahati Fish Wholesalers’ Association confirmed Haque’s account. “All of our customers have the same story to tell: that they do not have enough cash anymore,” said Deka. “In the last two years, overall sales have gone down by around 30% in my estimate.”

But what has brought about these bad times? “Notebandi did not help,” Haque said, referring to the demonetisation of high-value currency notes in November 2016. The next setback, according to him, was the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax in July 2017. “The fish comes in from Kanpur and Andhra [Pradesh]. The trucks have to pay GST, that has reduced our margins even more,” he said.

As a consequence, the past few years have not been easy for Haque who has to fend for a family of four – his wife and two sons – in the city, and also send money to his parents who live in a village about 60 km away.

“Some months, we struggle to get by. We are always doing plus-minus now,” his wife Rozina Ahmed said.

For instance, Haque said he has not been able to pay his sons’ private tutors for almost a year now. “I own Rs 24,000 to my elder son’s teacher, and Rs 4,500 to the younger one’s,” he said. “They keep calling me to remind, but they understand that I am a fish-seller with limited income.”

Cutting back on indulgences

Haque’s elder son is in junior college and is preparing to be a doctor; the younger son will take his Class 10 board exams next year.

“My biggest worry now is: if my son does well like his matric and gets through a medical college somewhere outside the state, how will I afford it?” lamented Haque. His elder son scored 87% marks in his matriculation exams.

To focus on essentials like food and education, the family has cut down on things they would indulge in occasionally in the past – like new shirts for the boys on Eid or pocket money so that they could grab a bite at the school canteen. “We think twice before buying anything,” said Haque.

Haque is not too optimistic about the future, either. “There are no good signs, no hope in the market,” he said. Bank savings too, he claimed, “are only going backwards”. “I am barely managing to keep things together; there is no question of being able to put money in the bank.”