‘Inflation Does Not Allow Us To Be Vulnerable, We Just Work Non-Stop’

The small business run by the Paswan family survives through relentless work. Even after 30 years of this, the only way to make ends meet and save some money is by limiting expenses to necessities

The bylanes of Said-ul-ajab, an urban village on the outskirts of South Delhi, are full of small shops that cater to the students and young professionals who live in the area, known for its affordable rents and easy access. Pandit General Store, run by the Paswan family, is one of them.

Kunti Devi, 45, and her husband Raju Paswan, 47, have been running this shop for seven years now. I speak to them to understand how the migrants find work in the city and how they cope with the rising cost of living as small business owners. Their store is small and packed with assorted merchandise – from groceries to packaged foods, beverages, toiletries, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, and household items. 

What piqued my interest in the little shop was that it had become something of a welcoming chaupal for the residents of the buildings around it. I would find people congregating there in the evenings, unwinding over a cup of tea or cigarette while discussing politics.

The Paswans are both consumers and sellers and it was interesting for me to discuss the impact of inflation in their lives and how much price rise benefits them as owners of a small business. I found that with four children, two of whom are married, rents to pay and the unpredictable nature of business, the couple has had to work non-stop.

In the early years of their business, the couple never shut their shop – they simply could not afford to, says Kunti. “We had to make sure to earn as much money as possible to make ends meet. But now as our age advances we can only do so much and we run our shop only for 17 hours. We still do not take any days off,“ says Kunti. 

It’s been eight years since Kunti met her parents back in her village. “We cannot shut the shop refrigerators and if we leave them running there is always the fear of fire. We try to avoid additional expenses as much as possible. I even birthed all my children at home in my in-laws village,” she says. “There is no place for vulnerability when there’s so much to do.”

Inflation rate is determined by the average price rise of goods and services. Delhi has the lowest inflation rate of 2.29%. Manipur (10.9%), Odisha (7.5%) and Telangana (6.7%) are the top three states with highest inflation rates. These together define the financial distress that households in India are grappling with.

At BehanBox, we are seeking to map the costs and burdens of Inflation in real time through ‘Inflation Journals’, a series from across India.

Finding Their Feet

Local kirana shops, independent general stores, convenience stores, and paan/beedi shops belong to the unorganised retail sector and account for 90% of the total retail industry.

Kunti Devi manages her shop with authority, handling accounts, dealing with vendors, affable regulars and irritable customers with equal warmth and cheer. As a resident of the area for four years, I never cease to be amazed at how the couple worked all day everyday with unflagging optimism, humour and helpfulness, and also supported each other.


Kunti and Raju with a vendor and customer/Glenissa Pereira

Kunti Devi was 16 when she married Raju Paswan, two years older to her, in 1995. They have four children Priyanka 26, Mamta 23, Sapna 18, Sonu 15. Priyanka and Mamta are married with children, Sapna and Sonu study in government institutions. 

The Paswans are classified as landless agricultural labourers belonging to the Scheduled Caste, and lacking resources as per the recent Bihar caste survey. Raju migrated to Delhi NCR in search of employment at a time when Said-ul-Ajab was still a village populated with the dominant Jat community. Back then, the Jats in the area led a typical rural lifestyle, lived in jhuggis and domesticated cattle for a living. 

Remnants of village life/Glenissa Pereira

Urban Village of Delhi

Said-ul-Ajab, which combines the characteristics of both a village and a city, is named after a 14th century noble in the Tughlaq court and it also served as a residential quarter for officers of the British Raj.

Ruins of a mediaeval structure in a local park/Glenissa Pereira

An agricultural pocket, it transformed into a real estate hub in the 1990s through encroachments and constructions by a nexus formed between land grabbers, builders and influential locals and authorities. Affordability, the proximity to the airport and the arrival of Delhi metro attracted many migrants and also Afghan refugees, and Iranian and African workers. The old world charm of the neighbourhood has also attracted startups, offices, design studios, cafes and commercial spaces.

Offices and Cafes in Champa Gali, Said-ul-Ajab/Glenissa Pereira

Kunti sighs deeply as she begins her story. We have no control over how time changes and what it brings,she says. 

Raju migrated to Delhi in search of livelihood when he was just 12 and started working with a Jat farming household, helping them rear cattle. In the late 90s when buildings started mushrooming in the area, builders started hiring labour in large numbers, so Raju went to work at construction sites for floor polishing work. After they married, Kunti stayed back in their village till 2004 when their son fell ill. Delhi seemed a better place for healthcare and other amenities, recalled Kunti. 

Said-ul-Ajab village main entrance/Glenissa Pereira

However, Raju’s earnings were not enough to make ends meet. “Maalik das hazaar bolkar char hazaar dete the (his employer would promise 10,000 but pay Rs 4,000),” she says.

Setting Up Business

Labour work was also seasonal, so the couple would sell corn when no work was available. Eventually they decided to start their own business. They began by selling vegetables and earned an average of Rs 10000 a month, and would be left with about Rs 2000-4000 after paying Rs. 2600 in rent and utilities, Rs. 1000 for groceries and about Rs.2000 for miscellaneous expenses. But vending laws in Delhi did not favour them and they would be often turfed out of their spot by the authorities. 

During this time, they lived in rented jhuggi in a place where the rent economy was booming steadily. At the time the village was still surrounded by hillocks, trees, farms and ponds and open defecation was the norm and womens safety was a huge concern. “We used to go out in the fields with lathis,” Kunti tells me.

In 2014, the family rented a small apartment in one of the new buildings and another space to start a business – an abandoned spot, next to a garbage heap. Raju and Kunti spent three days cleaning the space, bought ply and asbestos sheets and renovated the room into a small snack and tea stall. During this phase, they used to pay Rs 1600 in rent.

In 2017, a building came up over the stall. The rent went up to Rs 14000 and to cope with the rising rent and expenditure, the couple expanded the shop and started selling all kinds of consumer goods and groceries. With the influx of tenants into the area, Pandit General stores upgraded itself.

‘People Are Buying Cheaper Stuff’

Kunti runs the shop while Raju handles the supplies, they have no hired help. The life of the Paswan family revolves around constant work for savings. 

Any kind of inflation hits the poor the hardest because wages and incomes in the unorganised sector workers are not adjusted to inflation. The loss of purchasing power of the common people ultimately stunts economic growth.

After demonetisation, the prices of products kept increasing but even then the family was fortunate to have good savings – about Rs 30000- Rs 40000 after expenses. Everything changed when COVID hit and people started relying more and more on online deliveries and e-commerce apps. 

The pandemic affected the family’s income drastically and since then it has been  downhill because youngsters prefer quick, convenient, 24×7 deliveries through grocery apps. Inflation has hit the area’s salaried professionals, their expenses have increased but incomes have not. So fewer customers are now demanding expensive items and most are looking for cheaper alternatives, says Raju. 

“When people start buying cheaper products, it reduces our earnings. We get Rs 9 for selling 10 packets of Kurkure, where each packet costs Rs 10,” Raju points out. 

The Paswans now pay Rs 19,000 as shop rent, Rs 10000 as house rent; their electricity bill is usually around Rs 14,000 and other utility bills total another Rs 3000. What they manage to save is variably between Rs 10000 and Rs 20000 depending on any additional unexpected expense that might arise . About 60-70% of their income is spent on rent and utilities.

Also, home rentals in the National Capital Region (NCR) have risen 25–40% due to post Covid rise in demand.

‘We’ve Denied Ourselves A Lot To Save’

In terms of expenses, the Paswan family’s focus has been strictly on food, shelter and education. “Hum shaukh dabake rakhein hai, tab jaakar bees-pachis hazaar bacha lete hain (we sacrifice a lot of our desires and wants and only spend on necessities),” says Raju. Even the children rarely ask for what they know their parents cannot afford, he adds.

Raju recalls taking loans from local lenders for his daughters’ weddings and of the debts incurred by his family in Bihar. They also send money back home to their parents. Since they live in the city, the family in the village expect financial help from them, Kunti tells me.  The Paswans recently got a warrant to pay back a bank loan of Rs. 25000 apparently taken by Raju’s father who is no more. They have no knowledge or documentation of this loan.

Securing The Future

In months when the profit margin is higher than usual, the Paswans invest in long term savings that could ease their life, such as a bike to cart merchandise. Kunti Devi recently bought a house in the same locality that cost her Rs 20 lakh, a small cost for a home in South Delhi but constructions in the area are not legally registered so prices are lower. This was made possible through years of savings and loans over gold but uncertainty always looms over Delhi’s urban villages. 

They have currently rented out the apartment which earns them Rs. 16000 in addition to their post-Covid monthly savings of about Rs. 10000-Rs. 20000 from the shop. They do not live in it and continue to pay rent for the existing house because of its proximity to the shop and the fact that the new apartment is located in a place where there is a water supply problem. But their current residence will go under redevelopment soon and then they will have no choice but to move to the house they bought, says Raju. 

I asked Kunti what her aspirations were for herself and her children. She says she wants  her children to study in private schools but cannot afford the fees. She also wants to make sure her children complete their education and find jobs. Her husband Raju, recently bought an LIC term policy and it requires a monthly premium of Rs 3,400. The couple does not think their savings are enough to secure the futures of their children as the price of everything from healthcare to education keeps increasing but they try to do as much as possible.

The Paswans hope to go back to their village someday once they have earned enough and secured the futures of their children. “We have to return to the land where we were born,” says Raju.

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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