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December 6, 2019

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Slowdown hits India’s poor hardest

The hunt for work becomes more desperate every day on Delhi’s street corner labor markets as India’s economic slowdown bites deeper, piling pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi just half a year into his second term.

With the central bank cutting interest rates five times this year — but unable to lower them any further yesterday because of high inflation — patience was running thin at the “labor chowk,” or market, in the packed, narrow streets of Old Delhi.

Among the hundreds of painters, electricians, carpenters and plumbers who anxiously gather at dawn each day, 55-year-old painter Tehseen has been a regular for three decades. But he is despondent.

His monthly income has slumped from about US$350 to US$140 in the past three years. He is at least still earning. The unemployment rate, currently about 8.5 percent, has hit a four-decade high in the past two years.

Tehseen blames government efforts to eradicate the tax-avoiding “unofficial economy.” A government survey this year estimated that more than 90 percent of the workforce are “unofficial.”

Modi stunned the country in November 2016 by canceling more than 80 percent of the banknotes in circulation and the introduction a year later of a nationwide goods and services tax dealt a new blow to business confidence.

Last week, official figures showed the economy grew just 4.5 percent in the second quarter, the slowest rate in six years. Modi’s rightwing government is struggling to convince the public that it has the answers to the slowdown. “Companies have suffered since the note ban,” said Tehseen.

“They do not want to think about getting their offices renovated when they have no business. We have to bear the brunt now.”

Raju, a labor market carpenter for 20 years, said he now goes for days on end without a job offer. “The work and the money are 50 percent down on what I used to get,” he said.

And lower wages means a harder time to get a meal on the table.

At the Old Delhi food market, Zarina Begum said she sometimes goes home with her bags empty. “The vegetables are just too expensive,” said the 50-year-old housewife.

On bad days, her children get a meal of pulses, or chickpea flour with oil.

Raj Kumar used to sell a meal of lentils and vegetables in his nearby restaurant for the equivalent of 56 US cents. But increased costs means he now asks 70 cents and sales have taken a hit. “I had to increase prices to keep up with expenses. But people just don’t have the money,” he said.

Sandip Jain, a 45-year-old stonemason, said people might have a good opinion of Modi but they are disappointed with his handling of the economy.

Ram Kumar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences said Modi has given incentives to the private sector but companies have not responded and the economy was now worsening because the government “avoids” questions on the slowdown.


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