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‘Inflation Does Not Allow Us To Even Aspire For A Better Life’

A cinema outing, books, dreams of personal space – every joy, big and small, has to be put off, says a young social activist, in the face of inflation

“Inflation is killing my dreams,” said Pradnya Prabhulkar, 30, as we strolled around Mankhurd with our cups of coffee from a local tapri near the Lalbhai compound on a sultry April evening. For me, inflation has always been about cutting back on one’s basic needs, in the here and now. This was the first time I had heard someone frame inflation in future tense, I said. 

Why should we see inflation within the ambit of basic needs only when its effects are long term–of  killing one’s aspiration in their youth?” she asked.

Pradnya is a healthcare professional-turned- social activist with a Masters degree in social work. Until February last year, she had a full time job with an NGO that works on vaccination awareness and drew a monthly salary of  Rs 17,000. She quit the job because the effort and the long commute were not commensurate with the salary. 

In a city like Mumbai, we spend 4-5 hours travelling and  9 hours working. So earning Rs 17,000 a month for a 15 hour day  at the age of 30 and with a postgraduate degree does not make sense,” said Pradnya.

However, she has found it difficult to find another full-time job that pays her well. “For a person  living in Mumbai, Rs 20,000-Rs 22,000 is the minimum monthly expense and this does not include leisure, just the fundamental needs. How can I survive in anything less?” she asked. She has, out of sheer desperation, done jobs for less. But now she wants more.

She now does occasional gigs like promotional events at shopping malls on weekends for which she earns Rs 600 a day. But the income is not fixed. 

“Sometimes I earn Rs 6000 a month,  sometimes Rs 3000 and sometimes nothing and most of it I contribute to home [expenses],” she told me, anxiety writ large on her face. 

Pradnya’s dreams are not ambitious by any means. They are those of any young Indian – learning new skills to improve her job prospects, a ‘room of her own’ that gives her freedom and privacy, a bit of leisure and time for hobbies. “Are they too much to dream about?” she asked. But Pradnya is caught in a cycle of unemployment and inflation, one feeding into the other.  

Maharashtra has an unemployment rate of 3.1 % for the year 2022-2023 and inflation rate of 6.01%, higher than the all-India rate of 5.09%, per government data from February 2024. Manipur (10.9%), Odisha (7.5%) and Telangana (6.7%) are the top three states with highest inflation rates. 

Inflation (the measure of the rate of increase in the prices of goods and services) is calculated using the consumer price index (CPI) and the wholesale price index (WPI). The measure of inflation determines the purchasing power of the consumer. With rising inflation, household debt is at an all-time high – 40% of the Gross Domestic Product (December 2023). And there has been a 47-year low in the net financial savings – at 5.1% of GDP. These together define the financial distress that households in India are grappling with.

At Behanbox, we wanted to map the costs and burdens of this distress in real time. We bring you an ‘Inflation Journals’ series that show through real life stories from across India how households are coping with rising costs and debt.

Compromises, Compromises

Pradnya lives with her ageing parents in a cramped 270 sq ft house they own in the Lallubhai compound in Mankhurd, an area of eastern Mumbai. Her father, a ward attendant at the Kasturba Hospital, a corporation-run facility in Byculla is the only one in the family with a steady monthly income of Rs 50,000 a month. 

But healthcare expenses swallow the family’s savings, including Pradnya’s past, and any future earnings as well. Her father underwent a spinal surgery just before the Covid pandemic. The government insurance that he was entitled to covers upto 5 lakh medical expenses  was insufficient to cover the cost of his treatment, Rs 7 lakh. Pradnya had to empty out all her savings that she had accumulated in seven years to help him.

“My father spends almost Rs. 35,000 from his salary to repay the loan he took from private money lenders and banks for these health expenses. Though he has been working with the BMC since 1987, it is only in 2007 that his job was made permanent but without benefits like health insurance,” she said. For households like the Prabhulkars, one healthcare emergency is enough to shift their economic status. In India 50 % of health expenses are paid through out of pocket expenses (OOPE) which pushes people into debts and poverty. 

The entire family now has to keep its monthly expenses under Rs 15,000. Vegetables cost her at least Rs 3000 a month; milk around Rs 1000, groceries around Rs 5000. There is maintenance of the house that usually hovers around Rs 500 a month, and the electricity bill averages Rs 1500, soaring to nearly double in summers. Travel and transport takes away another Rs 2000 a month. There is nothing left for emergencies.

But none of this will solve the main problem – the unaffordable price of nutritious food. The family has had to cut its consumption of vegetables, meat and fish because of the high food costs. “Earlier we used to have meat 3-4 times in a month in small quantities but now it is down to twice in a month. The cost of eggs has risen upto Rs 6 for one.”  

What about fruits? I asked. “No way. Poor people only eat fruits when they are sick. Other times it’s out of the question,” she said, laughing at the possibility.

Water is another additional expense for the Prabhulkar household. “Municipality doesn’t supply purified water, so we spend Rs 80 at least for a 20-litre can of non-branded water. The branded ones cost at least Rs 120. This is an everyday expense because a family of 4-5 people needs that much,” she pointed out.

When A Hike Of Rs 7 Hurts

Pradnya’s mother is severely anaemic and complains of frequent headaches but refuses to visit a doctor because that means Rs 500-Rs 1000 out of the family’s savings. Government healthcare is free but the long queues at clinics are intimidating for working class individuals who cannot afford to miss work. So they end up at private healthcare facilities that cost more or medicate themselves. 

Pradnya is reluctant to tell me first but she opens up after a while and talks about the frequent fungal and urinary infections she has to deal with and how she cannot afford to visit her gynaecologist that often. She does not want to spend Rs 800-900 on the consultation fee and another Rs 2500 on medicines. 

As a woman her age, I tried to imagine myself in such a situation.

Sanitary napkins, the most basic need of any menstruating person, have become more expensive.  Five years ago, a small pack which cost Rs 35, now costs Rs 42. But how big a dent can an extra Rs 7 make to their budget, I asked. She was livid at this off-the-cuff response. “Our income has not risen by a single Rupee; in fact it has shrunk. So every paisa counts,” she shot back. 

A Room Of Her Own

“Does the stuff of your dreams cost that much?” I asked, returning to my first question because I am interested in generational and cyclical poverty. “I want my personal space, where I can read, write, do some craftwork, sleep, and be with my partner. But I cannot afford that,” Pradnya said.

The rent for a single room-kitchen flat is around Rs 8000 a month, excluding maintenance and electricity costs. “I will need at least Rs 20,000 for the basics. Without a decent job this is not currently possible. So I only dream about it while living with my parents,” she said.

Pradnya would like to upskill herself for a better paying job but private courses are out of her reach. She needs a laptop but cannot afford one. She should ideally have a scooter to do her field work in the interiors of eastern Mumbai but she cannot afford even a secondhand vehicle and petrol prices have skyrocketed.

She cannot even dream of going on a solo holiday like other young people she sees on social media. So she tops up her mobile data with a monthly recharge of Rs. 249 and watches travel videos to satisfy her wanderlust.

We have returned to the local tapri for another round of coffee and I asked her if she can afford the small joys of life. Pradnya dabbles in craft and makes articles from clay but the cost of clay has gone up – from Rs 20 for 50 grams to Rs 35. 

“I love reading but no book costs under Rs 300. The last I bought was a year ago,” she said.  The last film she saw in a cinema hall was two years ago. “Now there are no single screen theatres where tickets used to cost Rs 100. Multiplexes charge Rs 300-400 a ticket. I cannot afford plays either.” 

Eating out with friends involves making calculations, discussing contributions and then heading out. “Usually each of us spends Rs 100-Rs 200 but over the last few months I cannot do that either. Thankfully street food is still affordable,” she said. 

‘Personal and Political’

Buying books and indulging in leisure is now a luxury for Pradnya. Here she is sitting in the community library where she talks to women on inflation and other urgent issues confronting the nation / Priyanka Tupe

Pradnya believes that inflation is not just personal but also political. “It is affecting everyone. So I feel it is important to create that consciousness among women,” she said. She has some innovative means of doing this in the Mankhurd-Govandi area.

“We run small public libraries called ‘Muktiche Swar (the voice of liberation)’ in Mankhurd, where we mobilise women and talk about these issues as well as carry on with routine literary activities like running reading circles,” she said.

She also participated in the Bhagatsingh Janadhikar Yatra organised by the Revolutionary Workers Party of India in March 2024 to mobilise people on the issues of inflation and unemployment. She travelled to Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and spoke to people about the need to look at these issues and go beyond the politics of religion, she said. We resumed our walk towards the community library.  

  • Priyanka Tupe is a multimedia journalist with Behanbox based in Mumbai.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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