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

Twenty-two-year-old Rahul Chaudhary does not remember the last time he or his mother Pratima Devi, 60, replaced their toothbrushes. They have not eaten eggs in a year. Chicken and fish have also become a delicacy to be consumed once in six months.

“It costs around Rs 200 to Rs 400 for a kg of meat,” Devi said. “If we earn that much in a day, then how can we spend it all on meat?”

This wasn’t always the case.

Chaudhary used to earn Rs 15,000 per month from plumbing work in construction projects in Kalindi Kunj, an area along the banks of Yamuna in South Delhi.

But after the government announced demonetisation in November 2016, making 86% of India’s currency invalid overnight and triggering a liquidity crunch, construction work in the area dipped significantly. There was no work for at least two months, Chaudhary said. When construction resumed, payments for his services as a plumber had crashed.

“Earlier I would get Rs 10,000 if I did the plumbing for five floors of a new construction,” he said. The rate was Rs 2,000 per floor. The work included fitting latrine pipes, water tanks, motors and sewage pipes, among other things.

“But after demonetisation people stopped paying rates per floor,” Chaudhary said. “Now the rate is around Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 for the entire building.”

He thinks the fall in the rates hasn’t been caused merely by the slump in construction, but also by an increase in the workforce supply. “There is so much unemployment because of which there are so many people in line for one job,” he said. “All these people are willing to do it for a lesser pay.”

To add to this, after the Goods and Services Tax was introduced in July 2017, prices increased of all the raw materials he used – cement, water motors, pipes, he claimed. For instance, the prices of 10-foot-long pipes doubled from Rs 100 to Rs 200.

As a result, his monthly income is down to Rs 8,000 – this, after he has taken up a part-time job delivering documents for a local businessman for Rs 2,000 a month.

Rahul Chaudhary and his mother did not remember the last time they changed their toothbrushes. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Cutbacks in consumption

Adding to the squeeze to the family’s income is the drying up of scrap work along the Yamuna, which fetched Chaudhary’s mother, Pratima Devi, Rs 5,000 a month.

“They do not allow anyone to immerse idols or dump their scrap next to the Yamuna anymore,” Devi said.

The squeeze has directly affected their food consumption. “We have reduced spending on almost everything,” said Chaudhary. “We add less oil and masala to our food so they last longer.” Other daily necessities, like soap and detergent, are also being used more cautiously.

The drop in income has affected how much the family is able to save. Before demonetisation, the family was able to save around Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 in a month, Chaudhary said. Of this, they contributed around Rs 3,000 to the local self-help group every month. But now the family is unable to save much.

Still, the family remains hopeful for its future. “I just want the work to increase so we can earn,” Chaudhary said.

There was one thing, however, that he was jittery about. “I have heard that we have to show proof that our grandfathers lived in the country, otherwise we will be kicked out.” He was referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s plan to draw up a pan-India National Register of Citizens. It had become the subject of conversation in the area.

Devi was sceptical about whether such an exercise could be carried out. “From where will we find his great-grandfather?” she said. “This is all rubbish.”