“We can’t afford to miss even a single day of work because of inflation”
Their prominent veins and aching limbs are testimony to the backbreaking toil of hand-cart pullers. A day of hard labour should in theory fetch them from Rs. 150 to Rs. 200 a day. But all around them costs have risen, compounding their misery.
“My grocery bill has gone up from Rs. 2,200 a month to Rs. 3,500,” says P. Kumar who has been pulling a hand-carts in Chinna Thambi Street for 25 years. This narrow lane in Sowcarpet has a signature smell: the pungent odour of garlic.
Every morning, scores of sacks filled with garlic are piled on hand-carts and hauled to the waiting lorries. When lorries don’t come to the city, he has no income. He has a family of seven.
“For the past six months, prices are out of control,” he says. “Even the price of tea has gone up. From January, a glass of tea costs Rs. 3.50, up from Rs. 2.50," he says. “The size of the special masala dosa is now the size of the saada dosa, but the price is the same,” he says.
“The cost of schooling [in private schools] is killing us,” says P. Velu, a labourer for 14 years. “We work so that our children can get a good education, and come up in life. As Corporation schools don’t give quality education, we send them to private schools,” he says.
Taking loans with 15 per cent interest to fund chidren’s education is common.
“We were somehow able to manage before prices shot up. Now, it’s very difficult,” he laments.
“The price of a bar of soap has gone up from Rs. 6 to Rs. 13,” says M. Gopal who works at Godown Street. Bales of cloth are brought to Godown Street from the lorry stand 2 km away using hand-carts. Labourers then carry the bales inside the shops. “We only weigh 50 kg, but lift bundles weighing 80 kg up three floors,” he sums up.
“Back, legs, arms, every thing aches,” says Gopal. “If we fall in we can’t go to government hospitals as we can’t afford to waste time. Even if we spend Rs. 300 in a private hospital, at least the treatment is faster.”
On a sombre note, he adds, “We can’t afford to miss a single day of work, with prices so high. If this continues, we won’t be able to survive.”