Recently this writer visited some working class settlements as well as gathering places of daily wage workers in Delhi. Conversations with people here revealed serious, persistent and increasing difficulties in meeting basic needs in a situation of stagnant wages and escalating inflation.
In consultation with social workers and people I tried to make an approximate calculation of the minimum income that a 5 member household would need to meet basic needs in a reasonably satisfactory way although at rather low levels. This appeared to be around Rs. 15000 to 19000 depending on various factors, without counting savings needed for any emergency. However the income of most of the household (members) I spoke to appeared to range between Rs. 7500 and Rs. 14000, depending on whether one or two members were employed. Here also we did not provide for almost complete loss of income for a stretch due to illness, injury or sudden work closures. In normal conditions also, in the case of most families, there appeared to be a significant gap between actual earnings and earnings needed to meet basic needs.
Two important factors which make quite a lot of difference relate to whether a family has a ration card or not and whether it is living in a rented dwelling.
Depending on the status of its ration card a 5 family may get a maximum of 25 kg. food grain (mainly wheat) in a month free of charge ( at present) or at a subsidized rate and this may last for 13 to 18 days depending on several factors. During the remaining days the poor too have to purchase wheat at market price. Most of the daily wage workers to whom I spoke at hiring points and who are essentially migrant workers living in rented rooms of urbanized villages told me that they do not have ration cards, or access to free or subsidized food grain, while most of the people in more stable settlements said they have ration cards and access to this ration.
Similarly it is the less stable sections or migrant workers of relatively recent origin who have to make the monthly rental payment of about Rs. 3000 or so. These two factors make survival more difficult to them.
However it is not just the less stable workers but also the better settled ones who stated that they live from day to day and if they do not earn for three days at a stretch they may not be able to cook and eat food (chulha nahi jalega), at least without borrowing.
From the point of view of nutrition it is the daily expenditure on vegetables and pulses (plus spices and edible oil needed to cook them) which are most important, and in a situation of very tight budget it is this expenditure which often suffers more, or is cut more. Inflation has added to the woes of people, as pulse price has increased a lot in recent years, and vegetables too are generally more expensive. So there is a strong pressure to cut down on daily needs of pulses and vegetables. Similarly there is hardly anything left for milk, and fruits are a rarity anyway. There is a tendency to look out for cheaper versions of various products, regardless of the low quality and health risk. All this has an adverse impact on nutrition and health. On the other hand the tough working conditions, pollution, adverse weather conditions, poor access to sanitation and clean drinking water, very inadequate housing conditions all contribute to poor health conditions.
The constant struggle to somehow match very inadequate income with minimum basic needs, the adverse environmental conditions, dirt and congestion, unemployment and underemployment, long wait at chowks to get hired for daily wage work—all these contribute to mental stress and poor mental health as well. In addition of course there is the sudden distress caused by some accident or social disruption.
These harsh realities of the urban poor need to be kept in mind all the time as there is an urgent need to give much more priority to the needs of the urban poor in urban development and planning.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.