‘Our Financial Situation Is So Bad That Our Relatives Have Stopped Visiting’

Carrying the burden of an eight-year-old debt, 50-year-old Karuna Kale from Madhya Pradesh’s Barwaha almost broke down while talking about the financial condition of her household

“I have no words to explain how bad the situation is at home,” Karuna Kale, 50, said. Dressed in a neon pink saree, she was sitting on a plastic mat with nine other women at a local NGO’s office in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwaha town.

I had come to the NGO office on the last leg of my election reporting work, to interview women who were members of local self help groups. Over the previous four days, I had spoken to many women for a story on the government’s claims about increasing the income of women associated with self help groups and making them ‘Lakhpati Didis’. I found that while these groups help women significantly in saving money and accessing loans at lower interest rates, they do not really raise their incomes. 

Situated on the banks of river Narmada around 60 km from Indore, Barwaha is en route to Omkareshwar, a pilgrim place that holds one of the 12 jyotirlingas revered by Hindus. Despite its place on a popular tourist route, there are few livelihood options in Barwaha, especially for women, said Karuna.“There is little work here except for a few cooking and cleaning jobs and some factories nearby. But not all women are allowed to take them up. We need more sustainable jobs that we can do from home so that we can manage our domestic responsibilities while earning some money,” said Karuna, whose earnings come from a cooking job.

Kusum Waghmare, 49, said that most women in the town have a sewing machine that helps them generate some income but that money is neither regular nor sufficient. “The work comes sporadically and pays little. People cannot survive on an income of Rs 50-100 a month,” she said.

The lack of livelihood options, combined with increasing inflation, has made survival difficult for Barwaha’s women and their families. This, along with stagnant wages is pushing many households into economic distress. Indian households’ net financial savings in fiscal year 2023 was the lowest in five decades. And at 5.31%, Madhya Pradesh’s inflation rate in April 2024 was higher than the national average of 4.83%. 

At Behanbox, we wanted to map the costs and burdens of this distress in real time. This is our fifth edition of ‘Inflation Journals’, a series that shows through real life stories from across India how households are coping with rising costs and debt.

Husband’s illness and Debt

Karuna’s financial troubles began eight years ago, as it often does, with a health emergency. “My husband had a hole in his heart. He was admitted to a hospital in Indore for a month and another in Vadodara for two and a half months,” she recalled. Despite months of hospitalisation and four surgeries, her husband’s condition worsened and he died. The surgeries, hospital stay and travel added up to almost Rs 8 lakh. “We have been paying it off since then but we still have a lot of debt,” said Karuna.

More than half of health expenditure in India is through out-of-pocket payments, which becomes a significant financial stress for households. Because of out-of-pocket expenditures, 15% households were pushed into poverty, found an October 2023 study.

Paying off these debts has become more difficult for the Kale household because of the increased cost of living. Karuna lives with her mother-in-law, her two sons, one daughter-in-law and a grandson.

The family earns about Rs 15,000-20,000 a month – Karuna makes Rs 3,500 on her cooking job and her sons earn a sporadic income – one instals Paytm machines at shops and the other, works in a liquor bottling unit.

“Everything has become expensive but the wages have stayed the same,” said Karuna. “We have to repay the debt from our incomes and then pay for routine expenses like food, electricity, milk and gas. There are health emergencies to take care of – my mother-in-law is often sick and my grandson recently had to be hospitalised for diarrhoea.”

Irregular Income, More Work

Employment is an equally big issue for the young. Karuna’s elder son had a fixed income but now he earns only when there is an installation. “Now everyone has the machines so he has to travel farther. This means increased expenses for fuel, which comes from our pockets. And my younger son gets work only when there is an extra demand for labour. Sometimes he stays home for days and even weeks,” she said.

Distraught at the crisis, she started working as a cook two months ago. “I spend around 1-1.5 hours in the morning and in the evening cooking. It should not take that long but they want to be served hot rotis and insist that the food be cooked on a slow flame,” she said.

She is not allowed leave and if she takes off from work, Rs 150 gets deducted from her monthly wage. Her income is not enough but it eases some of the financial burden. “Earlier we used to stock up enough dry groceries to last a year but now we can only afford to buy enough for a week or a month. There have also been times when we could only buy for a day – it is surviving each day as it comes.”

The financial situation is so dire that guests have stopped visiting them, said Karuna, choking back tears. “When guests come, we have to take care of them well and that costs money. Now my relatives have understood our financial situation so they avoid coming home. It doesn’t feel nice. My sisters-in-law recently came and they paid for the expenses for the two days they stayed.”

  • Shreya Raman is an independent journalist based in Mumbai covering gender, health and public policy.

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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