Hard Times: This chaat vendor in Mumbai has seen his income drop by half since demonetisation
Sachin Gupta (right) with his father Ashok Gupta at their chaat shop in Mumbai
Four years ago, Sachin Gupta and his father moved out of his uncle’s cramped one-room home on Chapel Road, in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, and began to live in a rented 100-sq ft room nearby.
Their new home cost them Rs 10,500 a month at the time, but they believed it would be worth it: not only was it located right behind Gupta’s pani puri and chaat shop, but it was also large enough to accommodate their expanding family. Gupta’s mother was finally able to move to Mumbai from their village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, and in 2017, Gupta got married and had a child soon after.
Today, however, Gupta cannot help rethinking their decision to move. His chaat business has been steadily declining for the past three years, his house rent has increased to Rs 13,000 a month, he has an 11-month-old daughter to care for and all household expenses have shot up in the past six months.
“If I knew the economy was going to be this bad, we would have continued staying with my uncle instead of renting a place of our own,” said Gupta, 26. “We might have to shift to a cheaper place if this situation continues.”
The “situation” that Gupta is referring to is the economic slowdown that India has been clearly facing for the past year. The country’s growth rate has been falling, major industries have recorded slumps in growth, factories have been shutting down and jobs have been scarce. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP ministers have been in denial about the state of India’s economy, but families like the Guptas cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand. In fact, like many other working class families across India, the Guptas locate the source of their financial distress to the two major shocks that the government inflicted on the economy in the past three years: demonetisation of 86% of India’s currency in November 2016, and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax in July 2017.
“Before notebandi [demonetisation], we used to earn between Rs 25,000 and Rs 30,000 from our business every month,” said Sachin Gupta’s father Ashok Gupta. “But after notebandi and GST, our sales started falling and we now earn an average of Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 every month.”
‘Indirect impact of GST’
The Guptas of Jaunpur have been in the chaat business in Mumbai for the past 60 years, ever since Ashok Gupta’s father started selling bhel puri in the city. Over the years, Ashok and his three brothers managed to set up three chaat shops in Bandra as a joint family. In 2008, Ashok struck out on his own and rented his own separate shop space, aiming to pass the business down to his son.
The shop rent, which was Rs 3,000 back in 2008, has gradually increased to Rs 10,000 today. Sachin Gupta with his wife Shilpa (left), his baby Shanvi and his mother Chitra. Sachin Gupta started working at the chaat shop as a teenager, while studying up to Class 12 at a Catholic-run English-medium night school. Since then, he has spent all his days running the business. The family spends every morning making chutneys and boiling potatoes and grams for the shop, which they open to customers at 4 pm. While Ashok speaks only in Hindi, Sachin is able to chat in English with many of his regular customers. “People are really friendly here, which is why I don’t want to move out of Bandra,” said Sachin Gupta.
He sells plates of sev puri, pani puri and other chaat for Rs 20 to Rs 25 each, to scores of customers every day. “We have not increased our prices in many years because people in this area would not be able to afford more expensive chaat,” said Sachin Gupta.
Prices of raw materials for their business, however, have only been rising. Cooking gas, which cost them Rs 200 a month before demonetisation, now costs Rs 310. Puris, sev, puffed rice and other items needed daily have also seen a similar increase in prices.
“It is all an indirect impact of GST,” said Ashok Gupta. “Even though our business is not big enough to have its own GST number, everything we buy is more expensive now because of GST.”
Apart from GST, agricultural distress has been playing a bigger role in inflation this year. In just the past six months, potato prices have risen from Rs 15 to Rs 25 per kg, and onion prices – thanks to a poor rabi crop harvest – have increased from Rs 20 to Rs 60 per kg. “We put less onions in our chaat items these days, and when customers ask for more we just tell them why it is not possible,” said Gupta.
In their house behind the shop, Sachin Gupta’s mother Chitra also has complaints about the rising cost of living.
“It took three years for the price of atta [flour] to increase from Rs 130 to Rs 150 for five kilos. Now in just six months, atta price has gone from Rs 150 to Rs 175,” said Chitra Gupta. Her forehead creasing with stress, she listed every other household item that has been hit by price-rise: dals, rice, vegetables, soaps and diapers for Sachin’s baby. Since Ashok Gupta is also a diabetes patient, the family spends at least Rs 600 a month on medicines.
“We are simple vegetarians and we have never spent much on shopping, so there really is nothing that we can do to cut down our expenses,” said Chitra Gupta.
In recent months, the Guptas’ income from the chaat shop has been less than their monthly expenditure, which is close to Rs 30,000. While chaat sales usually dip every monsoon before picking up again, their situation this year has forced the family to dip into their savings to subsist. They are now unsure of what to expect in the future.
“For three years, we kept thinking that the economy is down only temporarily, and that our business would get better in a few months,” said Ashok Gupta. “Instead, things have only become worse.”
While the Guptas blame the BJP government for introducing demonetisation and GST, Sachin believes any other political party would have been no different. “At least the BJP has done some good work by coming up with schemes for saving daughters and educating girls,” he said.
Sachin’s biggest worry is his daughter Shanvi’s future, for which he wants to build substantial savings. “I wish I had saved more money earlier, before things got bad,” said Sachin. “My dream is to buy a house and the shop space, and to make my daughter an air hostess.”