Earlier this week, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit claimed that ₹600 was sufficient to feed a family of five for a month with rice, wheat and daal (lentils). For my overseas friends, ₹600 is roughly equivalent to $10 or £6 or €8. The opposition politicians reacted as expected claiming the Congress Chief Minister was out of touch with society and it was insulting to suggest that ₹600 was sufficient to feed a family of five in these times and days of inflation.
I was naturally intrigued by both, Sheila Dixit’s comments and the reactions of the opposition and wanted to find out the reality for myself. Reading and hearing the opinion of others is one thing but going out and doing the groundwork yourself is another thing. So I set off on a brief but enlightening journey to understand the monthly expenditure and meal of the average low income family.
I spoke to a number of people in engaged various professions that would be considered to be in the lower end of the income bracket (watchman, maid, driver, etc) to gather details about their lifestyles. It is important to note that my research was done in a city (Hyderabad) so the results are bound to be vastly different from the outcome if the same research was conducted in a rural area.
One of the first things I noticed was that certain people had access to supplies from the ration shop (government subsidized outlets) while others didn’t. While everyone interviewed qualified for a ration card entitling them to a predetermined amount of supplies from the ration shop every month, a few people didn’t have the ration cards that would allow them access to the shop. The reasons for this were multiple; for example, one family was living in the city while their registered address was in their village which meant that they couldn’t access the ration shop in the city.
This makes a clear distinction between people with ration cards and people without ration cards and thus, their respective monthly expenditures were significantly different. In our case, since Sheila Dixit was talking about food subsidies, it might not make sense to include both sections in the research. However, I felt that it would be ignorant to exclude subjects from the research for sake of theoretical clarity and we need to take in account the practical life that is being led at the grassroots level, ration card or not.
A ration card holder is allowed to purchase 4 kilograms of rice per member of family per month at a subsidized rate of ₹1 per kilo. For a five member family, this would translate to 20 kilograms of rice for ₹20. Additionally, they also get 1 kilogram of daal per family at ₹50 per kilo. Cooking Oil is available at ₹45 per litre with a maximum of 2 litres per household per month. Since Wheat isn’t a primary staple in South India, people tend to opt to buy vegetables instead but they have to buy unsubsidized vegetables from the public market. This turns out to be the real price buster since even the bare minimum of vegetables tends to cost around ₹175 per week. Quickly summing up the above, we get a grand total of ₹860 per month (₹20 Rice+₹50 Daal+₹90 Oil+₹700Veg).
For a person without a ration card, that sum would go up to ₹1550 (₹600 Rice [₹30 per kilo of unsubsidized rice] +₹70 Daal+₹180 Oil+₹700Veg). However, as I’d mentioned earlier, the real kicker for both families is the vegetables which they consider to be an essential part of their nutrition. But for the sake of compliance with Mrs.Dixit, if we remove them from the food basket, it would bring the price down significantly. Understandably, the vegetables will need to be replaced by a much higher intake of daal. To calculate the compensatory amount of Daal once the government quota of 1 kilo is done, they would need to buy a minimum of 6.5 additional kilos (assuming consumption of 250 grams per day) at the market price of ₹70 per kilo. Summing up the new minimum cost price basket, we get ₹615 (₹20Rice+₹50 Subsidy Daal+₹445 Market Daal+₹90 Oil). So in reality, Sheila Dixit was more or less correct. Strictly speaking, it would be possible to feed a family of five to survival levels on ₹600 a month. But if you wanted them to eat nutritious food that would help them grow to be productive members of society, it would definitely not be sufficient.
As a photographer, I felt compelled to visually document their meals and I present below a summary of the three daily meals.