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 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just half a year into his second term.
With the Reserve Bank of India cutting interest rates five times this year — but on Thursday unable to lower them any further 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 at about 8.5 percent, has hit a four-decade high in the past two years.
Tehseen blamed government efforts to eradicate the tax-avoiding “unofficial economy.”
A government survey this year estimated that more than 90 percent of the workforce is “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 that the Indian economy grew just 4.5 percent in the second quarter, the slowest rate in six years.
Modi’s right-wing government is struggling to convince the public that it has the answers to the economic slowdown.
“Companies have suffered since the note ban,” Tehseen said. “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 that 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.
Lower wages means a harder time to get a meal on the table.
At the Old Delhi food market, Zarina Begum said that she sometimes goes home with her bags empty.
“The vegetables are just too expensive,” the 50-year-old housewife said.
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 at his nearby restaurant for the equivalent of US$0.56, but increased costs means he now asks US$0.70 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 stone mason, said that people might have a good opinion of Modi, but they are disappointed with his handling of the economy.
“Every businessman is in trouble and is worried. Those who ended their day with an income of 700 rupees [US$9.82] are now down to 270,” he said.
Indian Minister of State of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman has announced reforms, including easing restrictions on foreign investment and cutting corporate taxes, but that does little to boost public confidence in a country where hundreds of millions live barely on poverty wages.
The multination Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on Thursday stepped up pressure on Modi by calling for India to bring down trade barriers and reform its “complex” labor laws that discourage hiring.
“Consumption has fallen because of the breakdown of the labor market,” the Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Ram Kumar told reporters.
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, he said.
Economist Sameer Narang said that the government had to see through its privatization and other reforms, but warned that “it will be a slow recovery for India from here on.”
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