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Inflation has broken the back of common people in India. Reports suggest that prices of piped natural gas have increased for the tenth time since August 2021.

ANNESHA MUKHERJEE AND SATYAKI DASGUPTA | New Delhi |

Inflation has broken the back of common people in India. Reports suggest that prices of piped natural gas have increased for the tenth time since August 2021. Economist Rohit Azad highlights how the prices of crude oil and inflation (measured in terms of both the consumer price index and wholesale price index) move together, such that the rising prices of the former precipitate an escalation in the general cost of living.

He also argues that the inflation-targeting policies adopted by the Reserve Bank of India have comprehensively ignored the class-based impact of inflation. The Indian labour market employs about 90 per cent of its workforce as informal workers whose wages remain unadjusted in the face of rising prices.

While inflation hurts the working poor by dampening their purchasing power, it also has a gendered effect. One of the crucial components of a household budget is the expenditure on the mode of cooking availed. According to a report in 2022 by the Petroleum Planning & Analysis Cell (PPAC) of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, 99.8 per cent of the households in India have active LPG connections.

With an extensive penetration of gas cylinders, inflation manifests in the household through the kitchen. 67.83 per cent of married women report being the primary decision-maker regarding what to cook on a daily basis (Indian Human Development Survey 2011-12); accordingly, women in India spend 204 minutes a day in food and meals management and preparation, while males spend 94 minutes (Time-use Survey Report 2019).

This gender difference in time allocation towards meal preparation thereby results in women being the most immediate victims of an increase in the price of LPG cylinders in particular and of inflation in general.

While the basket of goods bought in the household for daily sustenance shrinks in the face of increasing food prices, rising gas cylinder prices aggravate this situation. Thus, inflation in general has a disproportionate gendered effect wherein women face the burden of bringing about minor and/or major adjustments in the mode and the contents of cooking.

The interplay of poverty and gender can be observed among women of low-income neighbourhoods in urban areas. To this end, we spoke with 45 respondents residing in the slums of south Kolkata regarding the increasing price of gas cylinders. They confirmed that they pay around Rs.1100- 1200 for one gas cylinder that lasts for at most two months. Thus, while inflation has an adverse nationwide gendered impact, its effect is more intense for the poor women in the economy.

Riya Sardar, 29, put forward the problems of inflation: “It doesn’t matter what we earn – even if both spouses are earning, it is becoming impossible to meet household expenses due to the rising prices……I need to see a private doctor but one visit requires me to pay Rs.800. I choose to ignore my health because that money can pay for my children’s tiffin for a month.” She is employed as a domestic worker who currently earns Rs.7000 from her job. Riya adds: “We were better off when my husband earned Rs.80 a day and I earned Rs.350 per month. Our earnings have increased now but the prices of all consumer goods have risen by a greater proportion. Our earnings remain unadjusted for this inflation.”

Shafeena Bibi, 30, echoes a similar concern. She says: “Earlier I used to earn Rs.50 every month, and I managed to pay rent, send my daughter to school, etc. Now I earn Rs. 1,000 and nothing remains! Take for example the per kilogram price of rice – the same quality of rice that would cost Rs.7 per kg is now Rs.40 per kg.”

Following our discussion with the women in slum areas, we note three probable effects of rising prices of gas cylinders. First, working-class women may make a complete shift to using clay ovens (unoon) or firewood in the face of the increasing cost of living. A report by Seema Prasad finds that 10 per cent of the households in Kandukur village in Andhra Pradesh have moved back to using fuelwood.

Moreover, the collection of fuelwood is a gendered activity and such a shift will intensify women’s unpaid labour within the household. An added burden for poor people in urban areas is that unlike in rural areas, firewood needs to be bought at a price.

Rukmini Sardar, 27, says: “If gas cylinder prices rise further, I might have to shift to using firewood again…there is no other way. I can neither steal nor can I put my children out in the streets to beg.”

A similar concern was echoed by 26-year-old Saleema Bibi: “Gas prices have increased tremendously. I already have arrangements required for an unoon right outside my house. I will start cooking there if I can no longer afford to buy gas cylinders.”

Although this shift might cut fuel expenses, it leads to worse health conditions for women in particular and for all household members in general. The elderly will be more susceptible to health problems from the smoke such cooking entails. Moreover, women will need to put in greater effort and hence invest more time in this mode of cooking. Such a scenario further intensifies their burden of unpaid household labour. If they shift to using stoves completely, they will have to incur the cost of kerosene, the prices of which have increased even in fair-price shops.

All respondents reported that the price of kerosene in fair-price shops is as high as Rs. 90 per litre. Second, women might complement the use of gas cylinders with traditional stoves. Babli Naskar, 45, says: “I already complement gas cylinder usage with fuelwood… Often I cook the rice using fuelwood and make the rest of the food on the gas stove.” Two different modes of cooking requiring separate arrangements increase the effort that women need to put in for cooking. While some slum-dwelling women in our survey had space in front of their houses to set up clay stoves, many did not. The latter must adjust to the restricted space they have at their disposal.

Domestic worker Chandrabati Sardar, 27, used a pump stove for cooking and began using a gas cylinder only last year. She comments: “I cannot use coal for cooking because we stay in a rented place. If the price of gas cylinders increases, I will either have to shift to using a pump stove again or continue using the cylinder and manage somehow.”

This “manage somehow” comes with a clear increase in physical and time costs on part of women.

Further, it is difficult to gauge the impact on economic costs – on one hand, the gas cylinder will last longer, but on the other hand, kerosene will need to be bought if they complement this with stove usage.

Third, women might continue to use gas cylinders even in the face of rising prices. In this scenario, the household might cut down on other expenses. For example, the quality of food consumed might deteriorate further, and/or per capita consumption of food might decrease. Households may need to cut down on educational expenses for the children. Studies have shown that when such a cutdown takes place, it is generally the girl child who has to withdraw from school and contribute to household chores. Our interaction with slum-dwelling women in Kolkata also highlighted the problems associated with an increase in the price of electricity.

Ruma Mondol points out how their purchasing power has received a blow in the face of increasing electricity prices. “Two years back our electricity bill would come to Rs. 400 every month. Since then, the hike in rates has increased our bill to at least Rs. 1000 per month.” The effect of inflation is aggravated for poor working women because of their disadvantaged position in the social and economic hierarchy. Our survey of Kolkata’s slums paints a gloomy picture. Recently our finance minister stated that India may be looking to get back to coal as gas has become unaffordable. This is easier said than done. Despite the common misconception, not everybody is in the same boat facing the storm of inflation. Inflation – a common man’s problem – has major class and gendered effects