Down and out in Chandni Chowk

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Kunal Diwan

Unchecked inflation has added to the miseries of the poor

Price of chappatis has doubled from Rs.2 apiece to Rs.4; a cup of tea from Rs.2 to Rs.3.50

‘We can cut back on other aspects of our threadbare lifestyle, but what to do on food?’

NEW DELHI: How much worse can things get when one is already on the bottommost rung of the social ladder?

Possibly one of the worst hit by the price rise phenomenon, the ghetto-dwelling community of rickshaw-pullers in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk is living proof that there is scope for deterioration even at the lowest stratum of routinely overlooked communities.

Soaring prices of essential commodities have thrown on the mat a group of people who were never quite up on their feet to start with.

The miniature habitation that serves as a makeshift shelter for scores of rickshaw-pullers also provides sustenance to a handful of roadside eateries, a couple of “Italian” barbers besides an old man bending over a wheezing sewing machine for on-the-spot mending of ragged clothes. Like always, it is difficult to ascertain where the aroma of half-baked rotis ends and where the stench of the adjacent urinal begins. But things have changed perceptibly even in this minimalist setting.

Already functioning on a spartan budget, drastic cost-cutting may well be the elemental guideline penned down in the rickshaw-puller’s guide to survival in an increasingly uneconomic market.

“The price of chappatis has doubled from Rs.2 apiece to Rs.4 while their size and substance has decreased inversely. The generous servings of curry that were once served gratis along with the bread have also stopped. We can cut back on other aspects of our already threadbare lifestyle, but food is something that cannot be done without,” says Santosh, a rickshaw-puller who arrived in the Capital nearly three years ago in search of employment.

The story is by and large the same -- hopeful rural residents making their way to the Capital in search of brighter prospects and then being dealt jolting eye-openers by apathetic authorities and an insensitive economy. Earning anything from Rs.100 to 150 per day, it takes an uncanny knack of downmarket financial jugglery to make ends meet for a rickshaw-puller.

Taking his place in the queue to the tandoor into which a cook is dextrously placing saucer-shaped mounds of kneaded dough, Santosh says the rising prices have forced him to wind up his own improvised kitchen as his earnings could not keep up with the cost of rice, pulses and kerosene.

“It’s cheaper eating here, but the quality goes for a toss. Some of us also resort to eating near New Delhi railway station, but the vendor there has increased the price of a plate-meal too. Even the price for a cup of tea has been inflated to Rs.3.50 from Rs.2 making us keep a mental note of how many cups we’ve downed,” he adds.

The price rise, unfortunately, has not been restricted to the realm of essential goods.

Playing havoc

Jairam from Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh says mounting costs of maintaining rickshaws is also playing havoc with their already threadbare budget. “Nearly all rickshaws in this ghetto are hired on a rent of Rs.35 to 40 per day. The cost of getting a punctured tyre repaired has also shot up to Rs.10. The last straw is that the authorities have disallowed rickshaws on most roads in Old Delhi that has left us with a condensed area for seeking livelihood,” he adds.

Most rickshaw-pullers also confess to downsizing their consumption of tobacco in various forms, restricting their occasional splurges at the local cinema and resorting to extreme penny-pinching measures to ensure they have mustered up a decent amount before their biennial trip to their respective villages.

Surprisingly, Vinay Singh from Bihar says most of his professional brethren prefer summer to winter. “Winter is a rich man’s season. We cannot afford the multiple layers of clothing against the bitter cold and finding a shaded alcove to sleep in becomes a problem too. Clothes too have become dearer,” he adds.

But summer has its own attendant problems. In a vigorous, physically-consuming profession such as theirs, the rickshaw-pullers have to ensure a steady intake of water to avoid dehydration. “A glass of cold, drinking water costs one buck at most vendors. I could easily gulp down 20 such glasses in a day, but mostly I ride around on the look-out for public taps as it in unthinkable to spend twenty hard-earned rupees every day on something as basic as water,” says Vinay.

For a city obsessed with outwitting the summer by split air-conditioning and minimising physical exertion, it comes as a smacking realisation that there are those who have to think twice even before buying a glass of water. Man does not live by bread alone, but try telling that to this impoverished group trying to keep body and soul together in times of unchecked inflation.

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