As part of our series Hard Times, we speak to working class families on how the slowdown in the Indian economy is affecting them.
Mahesh Sarma, 52, recalls life being fairly comfortable till three years ago for his family of four in Guwahati. Sarma’s shop, where he sells a range of items from tobacco to stationery, was doing well; his wife, who works as a tailor from home, also added to the family income.
But, according to Sarma, all of that changed around 2016. “If you compare,” he said, “business has gone down by around 60%.”
Sarma said he now earns not more than Rs 12,000 a month, sometimes barely Rs 10,000. His wife, he said, makes around Rs 4,500 a month. The family’s income has drastically dropped from the Rs 25,000 they earned before 2016.
Sarma’s diagnosis of this decline is largely three-pronged. The “main culprit”, he said, was demonetisation. After 86% of India’s currency became illegal overnight in November 2016, he claimed, his customers’ access to “extra cash” stopped. “People started spending only on the bare essentials,” he said.
Next he blames the slowdown, somewhat curiously, on the updating of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. A large number of his customers, he explained, were daily-wage labourers from the Bengali-speaking Muslim community of the state. “Every morning, there would be a crowd of people outside my shop waiting to recharge their phones before they went to work,” he said. “But after the NRC hysteria gripped the state, most of them suddenly disappeared.”
Lastly, Sarma said easier access to internet had killed his phone recharge business, a key part of his operations. “Now everyone is recharging their phones online,” he rued.
How has the slowdown affected the family? The most tangible impact, according to Das, could be seen on the dinner table. “We have completely changed the way we eat,” he said. “Earlier we would eat fish or meat two to three times a week. Now we have to make do with dal-bhaat most of the time.” [This echoed the claim of a fish-seller that his sales were down.]
It hasn’t helped that Sarma’s two daughters are growing up and the cost of their education constantly rising. His younger daughter, 14, will appear for her Class 10 board exams next year; his elder daughter is enrolled at a city college. “Now that there is a semester system in the college, subjects change every six months, which means new books,” he said.
The decline in income has meant that Sarma cannot save anymore. “There was a time when I could deposit Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 a month in the bank,” he said. “My savings has reached Rs 1 lakh, with which I bought some land.”
Now, though, Sarma said it was “hand-to-mouth” for the family.
But Sarma is hopeful that it is just a bad phase and will pass. “People are saying that corruption in our country has gone down and this downturn is a temporary effect of that,” he said. “Things will probably get better soon.”
Besides, he pointed out, his daughters would complete their education soon and start contributing to the family income.