Nirmala Mary is the sole bread winner of her five-member family. Her husband is ill and her eldest son lost his job in the fallout of the COVID-19 economic crisis. A resident of S M Nagar slum near Chennai Central, she works at a government hospital and takes home Rs 11,000 per month. A majority of her income is spent on buying essential commodities and paying rent. In such a scenario, the skyrocketing prices of vegetables in the city has been the proverbial last straw.
Not just Nirmala’s, but low and middle income families across the city are struggling to balance their food budgets. With the prices of staples on a steady rise over the last four months, curtailing consumption seems to be the only solution.
“A kilo of onion costs between Rs 50 to Rs 60 in the retail market. Except a few veggies such as white pumpkin (Rs 35 per kilo), all of them are exorbitant,” says Nirmala. She has made changes to the menu by excluding vegetable fries and onions. Their regular meals now consist of tamarind curry, rice gruel and occasionally the watery lentil curry.
“It is unbelievable how expenses have increased multifold but not our salaries,” says Nirmala, who has 18 years of work experience in various fields, as a teacher as well as in managerial roles.
Of compromise and indebtedness
The lowest rung of the economic ladder are almost always the hardest hit by food inflation. It leaves them mired in debt, with no sources of additional income.
“I spend around Rs 150 a day on vegetables to feed five mouths in my family,” says Nirmala, to ensure which the family finds itself neck-deep in debt today, given the present situation of unemployment and food inflation.
|Price per kilo in wholesale market
|Price per kilo in retail market
For many residents in the slums and housing boards of Chennai, compromise on taste and health has been the only way to face food inflation. E Gandhimathi who works as housekeeping staff has given up cooking eggs over the last three months. A resident of M S Nagar Housing Board of Chetpet, Gandhimathi earns Rs 10,000 a month.
“Eggs were the only source of protein for my two adolescent kids. Even though I know the choice affects their growth, I cannot afford to spend Rs 6 on an egg now,” says Gandhimathi. Cooking a balanced meal within an affordable budget seems to be a tall task, especially when the cost of staples such as onions, tomotoes and potatoes are so high.
Factors behind price rise
Generally, prices of vegetables are at their lowest between November and January. Then why is it different this year? It’s an amalgamation of many factors, say economists and traders.
Chennai gets its vegetables from across the country. The foremost reason for such inflation is the disruption in transportation due to COVID-19. “Disruption in truck movement has affected the supply chain, which leads to heavy losses for farmers. Already in neck-deep debt, farmers have no funds to carry on regular farming activity,” said Dhanapalan G, a farmer from Kodaikanal, who cultivates carrots and brings it to the Koyambedu market for sale. The supply was badly hit for more than six months that left farmers such as Dhanapalan in deep debts.
Consumers feared visiting the markets during the months of lockdown, buying only the bare minimum — another factor that hit farmers hard. This in turn constricted supply, pushing up prices.
The slump in the supply chain due to COVID-19 has had a cascading impact. “A slump in a season carries on for at least two to three subsequent seasons. The fall in the quantity of production is also due to the absence of cold storage facilities that would have helped farmers in storing essentials. Till farmers recoup their losses, the situation is predicted to continue,” says S Janakarajan, former professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS).
The relocation of Koyambedu market following the outbreak of COVID-19 plays a significant role. “Only 40% of the traders set up their shops at the relocated Madhavaram market, as it was not conducive to loading and unloading. Even though the market has shifted back to Koyambedu, Chennai Corporation allows us to do business only from 10 pm to 4 am to restrict the movement of people,” says Murugan B, a fruit merchant at Koyambedu market.
Chennai gets most of its essentials from the states of West Bengal and Maharashtra. “Excess rainfall has resulted in crop damage in North India. That’s another reason why prices of veggies such as onions and potatoes are at an all-time high,” said Janakarajan.
Looking for solutions
Soaring veggie prices have led the lower middle class and poorer sections of the society to come up with different strategies. Kusuma P, who works as a cook in a small restaurant has replaced onions with other veggies. “Scrambled eggs with onions is a must at my home. Since I don’t have the means to use onions, I replace onions with cabbage,” she says.
“Making fish curry seems to be an affordable option. But how long can we go on with just fish in the menu?”Nundiyny A D, a home maker and a social activist
Food inflation has also prompted the economically better-off to take up kitchen gardening and terrace gardening to save money. “It started as a hobby during the lockdown. But it is the soaring prices that motivated me to continue growing vegetables on my terrace. I save more than Rs 2000 now through such initiative,” says Kavitha Prasad, a software engineer. She grows tomotoes, spinach, cauliflower, onions, brinjal and ladies finger on her terrace.
Market experts predict the inflationary trends to last at least till mid-January. Till then, essential vegetables will remain out of reach for the urban poor. Those struggling on a shoestring budget can rely on seasonal fruits such as oranges and bananas that are relatively more affordable.