'If I rest, how will I earn?'

How an Indian street hawker manages his monthly costs.

An illustration of a street vendor in India
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A new series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Kailas Rathod

Age: 32

Occupation: Street hawker

Lives with: His wife Sunita (25), and two youngest children Rushika (4), and Vansh (2), in a two-bedroom apartment. His younger cousin Anpros Rathod (21), and his wife Sonu Rathod (19), live in the second room. His two older children, Aditi (10), and Anushka (8), attend a boarding school in a neighbouring state.

Lives in: Hyderabad, India’s fourth-largest city (population 6.9 million) in the southern state of Telangana. Kailas is from a village called Mandvi in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, but first moved to Hyderabad in 2008. Since then, he has gone back and forth depending on the demands of work and family. In 2021, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions eased and work opportunities dwindled in the village, he returned to Hyderabad. His family remained behind but his wife and two youngest children joined him in September 2022, halfway through the month during which Al Jazeera followed him.

Monthly household income: Ranges from 22,000 to 23,000 Indian rupees ($267 to $279). He is the only member of his nuclear family who earns an income. His brother also gives him a Rs 15,000 ($182) share every year from the income from their farm in Maharashtra. According to government estimates, the per capita monthly income in India in 2020 was Rs 11,254 ($150-$160 at the time).

Total expenses for the month: About Rs 19,000 to Rs 20,000 ($230 to $240).

A pushcart vendor in Hyderabad, India, next to his stall
Kailas Rathod stands beside his roadside stall [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]
Kailas Rathod stands beside his roadside stall [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]

A woman stops at Kailas Rathod’s roadside stall in Hyderabad one weekday afternoon. It’s a small, covered cart just off the street, close to a throbbing intersection of traffic, pedestrians, and stray cattle. On one side stands a car showroom, with an upmarket clothes shop on the other. The woman goes through the black hairpins the vendor has on display, and asks in Hindi, “How much?”.

Kailas, a slender man with a weathered face, thinning hairline and a trim moustache, replies: Rs 10 ($0.12) per pair, Rs 40 ($0.50) if she wants the full pack. This is too much, she tries to bargain. “That’s how much it is,” he shrugs, “I didn’t overprice it.” The woman walks away, without buying. It’s a pattern that recurs more frequently these days.

Kailas’s thin frame is cloaked in a frayed shirt and trousers; he wears the same pair of simple Rs 100 ($1.2) slippers every day – the only pair of shoes he owns.

Every day, he pushes his cart about a kilometre (0.6 miles) to reach his vending spot. There he spends each day, from morning until night - sometimes for up to 12 hours a day - hawking his goods in the hot sun.

He rarely takes time off. “Not unless there is work at home, or if I’m sick or someone needs me,” he says with a resigned shrug. “If I rest, how will I earn and feed my kids? Everything I am doing is for my children.”

Now that his family lives with him in the city, their living costs are slightly higher, but it is easier to have them all in one place than having to travel the 340km (211 miles) back and forth to see them.

A street hawker in Hyderabad
Kailas's stall is near a busy intersection in Hyderabad [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]

Kailas never finished high school (he studied until Class 10). When he first moved to Hyderabad, he did not know Telegu, the language spoken there, but thought a job in the city would enable him to better support his family.

Over the years, he has worked many jobs - laboratory helper, security supervisor, auto-rickshaw driver. And since January 2020, street hawker.

During the pandemic, he bought a second-hand auto-rickshaw for Rs 70,000 ($849) and tried to earn a living from driving it. He would make about Rs 300 to 400 ($3.6 to 4.8) per day, but fuel prices were a burden. That same year he sold the auto – for just Rs 30,000, ($364). “It was a mistake [to buy it],” he says. “I was just not breaking even.”

About 30 to 40 customers stop at Kailas’s stall and make a purchase daily. But numbers have fallen since last year when about 50 to 60 customers visited daily. He attributes the fall to rising inflation - retail inflation rose to a five-month high of 7.4 percent in September.

Kailas’s two oldest children need books, stationery and uniforms. He also has to take care of their private school fees in Maharashtra (which increased Rs 500 ($6) over the past year). Although public schooling is subsidised, Kailas, like many Indians, prefers to send his children to a private school as government schools have a poor reputation. He believes private schooling is worth it, even though money is tight, and hopes his children will get a government job or other form of salaried employment when they grow up.

Kailas’s wife stays home to look after the two younger children, but as they grow older, she too “will have to work”, he says. “How can I manage everything alone?” he asks.

A graph showing rising inflation in India
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Inflation is a creeping beast and over the past year, Kailas has sacrificed conveniences and luxuries to get by.  “Earlier when I was free, I used to go for a wander in the garden, take a day bus pass.” Now there are fewer trips to the local parks, and he no longer drinks tea or eats meat. “What's the point of drinking chai?” he asks. “What benefit is it providing? It’s just a habit. Only for five minutes, you feel fresh. That's all.”

When he offers visiting guests a cup of tea, it is without milk, another item the family has cut back on. Their diet has changed incrementally with time. Cabbage, Kailas’s favourite vegetable, which cost Rs 10 ($0.12) for a quarter kilogramme six months ago, is now Rs 60 ($0.73). As a result the dish they make by lightly stir-frying it with a dash of spices before serving with chapatis, is now rarely cooked, if at all. “Of course, I think of the taste from time to time,” he says.

A year ago, Kailas also gave up hot water baths - it no longer merits the escalating electricity costs, he feels. They bought an immersion heater but use that judiciously, too. Kailas says in 2020 he paid no more than Rs 180 ($2.18) per month for electricity; that has now spiked to Rs 600-plus ($7.28). One exception they make is to give the younger children hot water baths.

Over the course of a month, from August 15 to September 15, as part of a collaborative project, Kailas tracked his family's monthly expenses with reporter Bhavya Dore.

Here are the expenses that tested their finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A family of four in India
Kailas, his wife Sunita, and their two younger children, Rushika and Vansh [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]
Kailas and his daughter Rushika [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]


It’s August when we first meet Kailas. He is living in Hyderabad alone. In the middle of the month, it is time for him to pay rent for the single room he lives in. He suspects that his landlord is going to raise the rent, which costs him around Rs 6,000 or Rs 8,000 ($73-97) per month. He earlier also shared a single room with two other men in a hostel, for Rs 5,000 ($66) to save money.

At the start of September, his family relocates to the city to be with him. He moves with them into a two-bedroom apartment with a bathroom and kitchen attached. It costs double the amount he paid to rent his single room.

When his family lived in the village, Kaalas would send money to support them there, so while he pays more in rent now, his overall costs have not increased substantially - and there is added peace of mind from having his family with him. “It is better to have them close to me,” he says.

Last year: Rs 6,000* ($73.70) per month
This year: Rs 12,000 ($147.40)

An immersion heating rod on a wall
Kailas stands beside the immersion heating rod the family sometimes uses to heat water [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]

Oil, household shopping

In August, a week before his wife and children move to Hyderabad, Kailas visits their village for a festival called Pola, where cattle are celebrated. He always takes sweets for the children during celebrations, but this time he tries to manage his expenses by buying cheaper sweets and fruit in a smaller town closer to the village.

He knows the festival is bound to take its toll – as holiday shopping is inevitable. He also has to buy various staples for the household, including oil, rice and sugar. A large 15kg container of Krishna Gold refined soya oil is among the big purchases. Cooking oil is the centrepiece of most Indian kitchens, typically used by families at least twice daily to make hot meals. “Buying in bulk is cheaper in the long run,” Kailas says. “You also have a better idea when it will run out, so you can plan accordingly.” It lasts them about three to four months. “They say it’s 15kg, but it feels more like 13.5kg,” he complains.

Although there are difficulties, the holiday is pleasant. “It was wonderful to be home during festival season, but that also meant more expenses such as sweets and gifts for the people at home, new clothes for the children,” Kailas reflects. “You earn for a month and then during festival time the money flows out.”

Last year: 1,350* ($16) for cooking oil
This year: Rs 2,350 ($28) 

A graphic showing rising costs of goods in India
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Phone data

As he does every month, Kailas recharges his prepaid mobile phone connection.

Many non-salaried Indians typically recharge their phones every month by buying phone credit for small amounts. It’s impossible for people like Kailas, who have erratic earnings, to manage a post-paid account with a regular monthly bill. “What if we can’t pay on time, they may cancel the connection,” he says, explaining the reasoning. “However, with a prepaid connection, even if we don’t recharge it every month, and do it 10 days later, that is still all right.”

With his quota of 1.5GB of data per day, he usually uses Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube - sometimes for work. “Those things use up less data,” he says. He monitors YouTube, Amazon and other retail sites to check the rates of goods, so he is prepared when he goes shopping to replenish his stock for his roadside stall. It helps him plan so he can get the cheapest prices and save money. It also helps him know which markets have the best rates.

When Kailas first bought a SIM card in 2019, the telecom company’s clever advertising seemed to suggest that after a single down payment a customer would have unlimited lifetime calling. He says many of his friends and acquaintances also bought a SIM card, assuming this would work for life without recharging it for calls. “But this turned out to be untrue,” he says, ruefully. Data seems to slip through his fingers like sand. He says he gets only 1GB in effect, even though they offer 1.5GB. “You open Facebook or WhatsApp, and it just gets over,” he says. “Who knows if [the price] will go up further?”

Last year: Rs 149* ($1.80) a month, for 1GB per day for 28 days
This year: Rs 199 ($2.40) for 1.5 GB per day for 23 days

A man connects a gas cylinder to a stove
Kailas connects the gas cylinder to the family's stove [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]

Gas cylinder

In his sparse kitchen in the new apartment in Hyderabad, an orange pipe snakes towards the stove from a red cylinder of cooking gas.

The family is now together. And they cook twice a day, usually rice, dal and vegetables.

Gas prices have been among the worst hit in the past two years, with costs climbing consistently. “When it goes down even slightly, we are thrilled,” says Kailas. “But that hardly happens.”

Though the number of meals the family eats has not decreased, they try to speed up the cooking process to use less gas. A gas cylinder can last between one and two months.

Occasionally, the family has to explore black market options if the gas runs out suddenly and cannot be replenished during a holiday or the weekend. They try to work around gas expenses by using a pressure cooker when they can; as Kailas says, it cooks things faster and cuts usage by “about 25 percent”.

Last year: Rs 952* ($11) per cylinder
This year: Rs 1,105 ($13)

A man carries bags of good to sell
Kailas carries goods he bought from a wholesale market to sell at his stall [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]

Wares for his stall

One sunny morning, Kailas points to the items in his roadside cart - a haphazard selection of cheap plastic goods, knives, accessories, toiletries and masks. Once or twice every week he visits a wholesale market in the city to replenish his stock.

Every item he buys costs more than it did before; combs, for example, were Rs 36 ($0.44) per dozen and now they are no less than Rs 42 ($0.51). This means he has to pass on the cost to his customers. “But they don’t always understand, they try to bargain, they don’t realise we are also paying more,” he laments.

Kailas commutes to the wholesale market by bus, carrying large sacks of goods when he returns, all on his own. Occasionally he has to commute by auto-rickshaw if buses are unavailable. This month he spends Rs 7,000 ($85) on new stock - two years ago he claims he bought the same quantity for Rs 5,000 ($60).

Last year: Rs 60* ($0.73) per dozen knives (he buys 10 to 12 dozen)
This year: Rs 84 ($1.02) per dozen knives


For all the hardship inflation has brought, and all that Kailas has sacrificed – from tea to hot showers and his favourite cabbage dish - he can see one tiny silver lining in the cuts he has had to make.

Because of the cost, Kailas has been forced to lessen his dependence on gutka (chewing tobacco), a habit he picked up as a teenager soon after he left school. “It’s good the habit is breaking,” he says, a wry smile on his face. “Once you get into certain habits it becomes hard to leave them.”

Previously, he would go through Rs 40 to Rs 50 ($0.49 to $0.61) worth of tobacco every day. Now he has brought his consumption down to just Rs 10 ($0.12) per day. “Instead, if I can give the children something with that money I save, that would be better,” he says. But as yet, it’s impossible for him to totally give up the habit. At times “I feel the need for something in my mouth,” he says. And he succumbs.

Last year: Rs 50* ($0.61) for 20 pieces
This year: Rs 10 ($0.12) for three pieces

A street hawker in Hyderabad serves customers at his stall
Kailas works from morning until night at his roadside stall [Bhavya Dore/Al Jazeera]

Six quick questions for Kailas:

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? Mutton. Previously I ate it once a month, when I was living alone. It costs around Rs 700 ($8.50) per kg now and I can no longer afford that.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? I decided to relocate my family from the village to the city I moved to for work. When they lived far away, I was spending on them anyway, and sending money from here. Going back and forth was more difficult. If they are close then it’s better. If they need something or a problem arises, I can attend to them.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? We brought grain (sorghum, millet) grown in our fields back with us to the city. Instead of threshing the grain here where it costs Rs 10 ($0.12) per kg, I had it done in the village for Rs 7 ($0.085) for 3kg and then carried it here. That made the most sense.

4. When finances get tough - what advice do you have and what gets you through the difficult times? I try to distract myself by using YouTube or chatting with friends on WhatsApp. I would advise if you want to live well then try to earn consistently and think carefully about spending.

5. What’s your biggest money worry? Life is getting tough with this inflation. The biggest concerns are daily needs such as cooking oil, sugar, rice. For example, last week alone the price of rice rose by Rs 10 ($0.12) per kg. The other thing is rent. When I was living here in 2008, the rent was Rs 1,200 ($14) per month. I am trying to save, as my kids are getting older. But saving is difficult. Without money it is difficult to marry off one’s daughters. I have three daughters. I will need to spend on their weddings when they grow up.

6. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? I avoided having a haircut until I went home for a holiday. At home it cost me Rs 50 ($0.60). Here it would have cost about Rs 150 ($1.82). I was able to save Rs 100 ($1.20) this way.

*Last year’s prices were either sourced from Kailas or are estimates calculated using data from India’s National Statistical Office’s Consumer Price Index.

Source: Al Jazeera