“How do we cut down on our expenses?” -- this is one question that several families are increasingly pondering over. The rise in prices of essential commodities in the last few months has put households in a fix, leaving them with little choice.

It is not uncommon to hear families talk about their soaring monthly grocery bill, or see customers relentlessly bargaining with the vegetable vendor to save a few rupees. Families with school-going children have the additional task of paying the ever-increasing school fees. Professionals, too, are not spared.

Business development executive Anupama Aravamudhan says her transport expenses have gone up several times in the last few months. “I used to pay Rs.80 for an autorickshaw ride form T. Nagar to Tidel Park four months ago. Two months ago, they demanded Rs.100. And now, I pay Rs.120,” she says.

With the price of one commodity or service being blamed for the rise of another, customers are, indeed, at the receiving end. What are the market trends adding to the complexity?

Wholesale rates

Rates at the wholesale rice and pulses market are currently fluctuating owing to the arrival of new crop. According to Amara Visweswara Rao, president, Tamil Nadu Food Grains Merchants’ Association, the last few days have seen the price of rice drop marginally.

“Today (February 5), new variety of raw rice costs Rs. 25-26, while the old variety costs Rs.30-34. The price of boiled rice ranges between Rs.25 and Rs. 29. Prices will stabilise soon,” he adds.

S. Chandra Mohan, wholesaler selling pulses in George Town, observes that many residents from the city are coming to George Town to make monthly purchases. “We don’t mind selling in smaller quantities, as some of them come regularly.”

On possible reasons for this shift, he says: “The retail market is usually soon to reflect a price rise here, but when there is a decrease in the wholesale market, retailers rarely bring down prices, citing additional costs incurred.”

However, some like Ram Bhat, the proprietor of Mathsya restaurant, Egmore, feel that the difference between rates in the wholesale and retail market is blurring for many commodities. “If we go to the wholesale market, we would have to spend on transportation, right? The issue is not just the price rise, but the fluctuation.”

Retaining regular customers also means being careful in altering the prices in businesses like his. “The prices of a host of commodities such as vegetables, pulses and milk have gone up, but we have not hiked our rates correspondingly,” he says.

Alternatives?

Running a household is no easy task, either. The financial pressure is mounting, prompting a few to consider options they may not have otherwise.

P. Shaji, for instance, earns over Rs. 15,000 per month. But meeting the regular expenses has become rather difficult now. “My monthly budget has increased by over 40 per cent from last year. I am looking at getting at least sugar from the ration shop,” says the employee of a private firm, busy trying to upgrade his ration card.

His attempt to upgrade his ration card and a look at the crowd at PDS outlets points to a possible change in trend. More middle class households seem to be purchasing from ration shops.

According to officials of the Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Department, the response to PDS initiatives among the 22 lakh ration card holders in Chennai has improved. “The rice offtake has been relatively high. The rice sales for December 2009 in north Chennai for regular PDS are 12,117 tonnes and 9,073 tonnes in south Chennai,” says a senior official.

“A large number of regular card-holders who usually buy items such as tuvar and urad dal, are buying other items too,” he adds.

Healthcare

Healthcare is another area that families have to spend on.

The State-sponsored health insurance scheme has offered promise to some like Parimala, a domestic help in Velachery.

She recently admitted her son to the Government Kilpauk Hospital for surgery. “The medicines are supplied free but sometimes I visit several government hospitals before getting the required dosage of medicine for my son.”

Mala Umapathy’s husband, a retired bank employee, recently underwent a surgery. “When he was working, all our medical bills were paid by the bank. Now that it has tied up with an insurance firm and I don’t know how it will work out,” she says.

Farida Begum, a resident of Cement Road, Washermanpet, is a homemaker.

Her husband, employed as a tailor in a sewing unit, earns Rs. 100 a day as wages.

“We have not yet received the identity card for the health insurance benefit,” she says.

The card could be of help, she believes, as her older daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and is being treated at the Government Children’s Hospital, Egmore. Her daughters go to a private school that charges Rs.2,480 as annual fee.

While families like hers try and avail themselves of State assistance through schemes, making both ends meet remains the biggest challenge for them.

(With inputs from R. Sujatha, Liffy Thomas, Aloysius Xavier Lopez and Meera Srinivasan)

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