As part of our series Hard Times, we speak to working class families on how the slowdown in the Indian economy is affecting them.\
When 19-year-old Jai Medge got an accounting job at a film distribution company in January, his parents breathed a sigh of relief. Medge’s starting salary – Rs 7,000 a month – was bound to significantly boost their family income of Rs 15,500. So far, his father had been earning Rs 12,500 by delivering goods for a wholesale toy trader and his mother was earning Rs 3,000 as a domestic worker. Living in Mumbai was expensive, and savings were threadbare.
With a bigger family income, the three Medges believed they finally had a chance to save up for a home of their own, and to move out of the tiny, 54-sq ft flat they rent in Mumbai’s Khetwadi area.
But the Medges’ dreams of a more comfortable life were short-lived. As the year wore on, rapidly-rising inflation swallowed up most of their new income, and they barely managed to save Rs 1,000 a month. The national economy was slowing down, and it was starting to threaten the family’s financial stability.
“My boss increases my salary by Rs 1,000 every Diwali, but this year, he clearly told all of us that there would be no raise,” said 44-year-old Shantaram, Jai Medge’s father. “In fact, my boss said that he might have to let go of two of his six workers if this mandi [recession] continues.”
In September, Jai Medge’s salary was officially increased to Rs 10,000 a month, but this raise has only been on paper so far. For the past two months, Jai has not been paid at all. “Since I handle my company’s accounts, I can see that they don’t really have the money to pay my salary,” said Jai. “The mandi is so bad that at least seven film distribution companies in my office building have shut down in the past few months.”
The family cannot understand what has caused the economic downturn, but they believe that the past seven months have been more difficult than the months after currency demonetisation in 2016. “I would say the problems began this March, and kept getting worse, but I don’t know why it has happened,” said Shantaram.
Paying double for food
The Medges’ home, on the ground floor of an old, dingy building in Khetwadi, is neat, brightly-lit and as sparse as it could be: a small refrigerator in one corner, an open washing area in another corner, no cupboards, and all their belongings on a loft over the kitchen counter. Despite this, there is barely any floor space for Shantaram, Jai and his mother Anjali to sleep on, and Jai is often forced to sleep at a neighbour’s place. They share a common toilet with the building, and every time Anjali needs to bathe in their washing area, Jai and Shantaram leave the house to give her privacy.
Their rent for this home, Rs 7,000 a month, is the Medges’ biggest expense. Their second-biggest expense is the Rs 5,000 monthly instalment for paying back a Rs 4.5 lakh loan that Shantaram and his brothers had taken 10 years ago. “We had tried to start a milk business with that loan, but it never took off, and we are still paying it back,” said Shantaram.
The expense that pinches the most, however, is food. “We now spend at least Rs 500 a week on vegetables, which is almost double the amount they cost six or seven months ago,” said Anjali Medge.
Besides onions, whose prices have been as high as Rs 80 per kg in Mumbai because of a poor rabi harvest this year, everything from potatoes and tomatoes to dals and cooking oil has seen sharp price hikes. “Tur dal used to cost Rs 60 or Rs 70 per kg earlier this year. Now it is Rs 100 per kg in the retail market,” said Shantaram. “To save money, I have started going to the wholesale market in Masjid Bandar to buy dal for Rs 80 or Rs 90 per kg.”
Other than trying to buy household items at wholesale rather than retail rates, the Medges say they can do little to chisel down their monthly expenses. “We anyway eat very simple food, mostly vegetarian, and I don’t really go out with my friends to restaurants and movies,” said Jai Medge.
‘Trust in god’
As ardent followers of Lord Ganesh, the Medges also save up money to bring home a small idol for ten days every September. This year, the festival cost them Rs 20,000 – all of their savings – so that they could paint their house, buy an idol, feed guests and hire a band on the day of immersion. “If god is coming home, then we have to do all this,” said Anjali Medge.
Now that they are struggling to rebuild their savings, the family has to prepare for another major expense. For almost three years, Anjali had been ignoring persistent menstrual pain and a possible uterine prolapse. Now, she has been advised a surgery that could cost up to Rs 60,000. She has now sought the opinion of a second doctor and is waiting anxiously for a response.
For now, Jai Medge has no option but to keep working and wait for his company to pay his pending salary. Shantaram, meanwhile, has placed his faith in his boss’s good nature and benevolence. “My boss distributes plastic toys imported from China, so his business is affected whenever India has tensions with China,” said Shantaram. He is also worried about the Indian government imposing a strict ban on plastic, which could also severely impact the business. “My boss is very stressed, but right now he is keeping us on and keeps telling us to trust god.”