For the past three months, the toasted sandwiches that Nilesh Kashyap sells at a street stall in Mumbai have grown thinner and flatter from the middle. They are no longer stuffed with thick layers of potato, capsicum, tomato and onion, and regular customers have begun to notice.

“But what else am I supposed to do when vegetables are so expensive?” said Kashyap, 26, who has been running the sandwich stall near Bandra station for the past seven years. “If I raise the price of the sandwich, customers will stop coming.”

But many customers have already stopped going to Kashyap’s stall. In the midst of soaring retail inflation across the country, small store owners in several parts of Mumbai claimed that their sales have dipped. Kashyap’s income has fallen from an average of Rs 600 a day to Rs 400 a day.

In December 2019, retail inflation soared to 7.35%, up from 5.54% in the previous month. This is the highest rate of inflation India has seen since July 2014, and it has been pushed to this level mainly because of food inflation. In the five months from August to December 2019, food inflation shot up from 2.99% year-on-year to a staggering 14.12% – the highest in six years.

Rising food prices have forced many working-class families to make difficult choices between good meals and education for their children. It has also lowered consumer spending power, denting even large industries like the automobile sector.

Farmers place a large part of the blame for food inflation – particularly the sky-high price of onions – on delayed and excessive rains that damaged the 2019 kharif crop in several parts of India.

Kashyap, however, holds the Bharatiya Janata Party government squarely responsible.

“My family grows wheat in Gonda [in Uttar Pradesh] and they say that rains have been normal,” he said. “But the food dealers have been inflating the prices and the government refuses to do anything about them. I don’t want to say anything against this government but shouldn’t it be their responsibility to take action against dealers?”

Nilesh Kashyap is putting fewer vegetables in his sandwiches because of food inflation. Photos: Aarefa Johari

Middlemen to blame?

Kashyap is not the only one blaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for the unabated rise in food inflation. spoke to several low-income workers and small business owners in Mumbai who expressed frustration with the elected government for failing to crack down on “corrupt” middlemen – food traders who serve as the link between farmers and consumers.

“Corruption has increased a lot among traders in the past few years,” said Vijay Mata, 27, who sells printer cartridges from a small shop in Bandra. Mata claims his parents, farmers in Kutch, Gujarat, have been paid barely Rs 50 per kg for their tur dal harvest, while the dal sells for more than Rs 150 per kg in Mumbai’s retail market. “How can the cost increase so much? The government should be stopping them, but they have not done it.”

At a grocery store in Juhu, labourer Shashikant Sahu echoed the same sentiment. “These traders are the ones who control the prices of vegetables, and the government has always let them,” said Sahu, whose job has fetched him Rs 10,000 a month for over two years, without a raise. “But these days there are hardly any jobs and people’s incomes have gone down, so at least now Modi should bring mehengai [inflation] under control.”

Sahu claims his wife, a domestic worker earning Rs 4,000 a month, has been serving the family watery dal and fewer vegetables in the past three months to cope with rising grocery bills. Their family income was expected to rise after his oldest son finished a commerce degree in April 2019, but Sahu’s son has still not found a job.

“We worry a lot about how long this will continue,” he said.

Notebandi, GST, NRC

The Modi government’s decision to demonetise 83% of India’s circulating currency was a shock that the economy has not yet recovered from. In 2018, when interviewed contract workers at labour nakas in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai, the vast majority of them cited demonetisation and the botched-up implementation of the Goods and Services Tax as the main reasons for the scarcity of jobs in the labour market.

But the economic slowdown and high unemployment did not affect the BJP’s performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The party won an even bigger mandate.

However, rising food inflation might finally be souring the public mood. Many working-class residents of Mumbai voiced their anguish at the double whammy of a receding economy and rising inflation. Some of them had voted for the BJP in 2019.

“We had a lot of hope from Modi but after notebandi [demonetisation] things have only become worse,” said Shashikant Sahu.

Mohammed Shahid, a 60-year-old auto driver from suburban Mumbai, said: “Business has not been good ever since notebandi and GST, but in the past six or eight months it has only become worse.” Since August, Shahid’s income has dropped from an average of Rs 1,000 a day to Rs 600 a day, and his daily grocery bills have risen from Rs 200 to Rs 350.

Mohammed Shahid's food expenses have nearly doubled, while his income has fallen in the past few months.

“The Congress was a very corrupt party when it was in power, but at least it kept money rolling in the economy,” said Shahid. “This BJP government has sucked the money out of the market and now, instead of controlling inflation, it is imposing the threat of NRC on people.”

NRC, or the National Register of Citizens, is a list of legitimate citizens that the BJP government plans to make in order to identify “infiltrators”, according to repeated assertions by Home Minister Amit Shah. Combined with the new Citizenship Amendment Act, the NRC could be used to harass and delegitimise Indian Muslims and other marginalised groups. This has triggered mass protests against CAA and NRC across the country.

At his cartridge shop, Vijay Mata describes the Citizenship Act and NRC as “deliberate distractions” that the BJP government is using to draw attention away from inflation and the dire state of the economy.

“If the government does not bring down this inflation, I might have to leave Mumbai and go back to my village in Kutch,” said Mata, whose income has reduced from Rs 30,000 a month to Rs 20,000 in the past six months.

Yet, his anger is directed at the Congress. “The Congress never did anything good for the country, but we have had a BJP government in Gujarat for a long time and at least they gave us good roads.”

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Good meals or education? Food inflation forces working-class families to make tough choices