'With no savings, I am worried'

An Uber driver in Delhi struggles with 18-hour work days and high costs.

An illustration of someone driving with a receipt curling around the steering wheel.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

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

Name: Sheetal Kashyap

Age: 45

Occupation: Uber driver

Lives with: Her husband Kanhiya Lal (51), son Akash Kumar (27), daughter-in-law Radhika (24), granddaughter Haeksha (three months), daughter Kajal (25) and father-in-law Achchhe lal (70+).

Lives in: A 49 sq-metre (530 sq-foot), two-storied house in a residential area in Delhi, near the Indian capital. The family has lived in the same home for about 22 years.

Total monthly household income: The family’s combined monthly income averages 35,000 to 40,000 Indian rupees ($425 to $486). Sheetal on average earns about 55,000 to 60,000 rupees ($668 to $729) a month; however, her net income comes down to about 20,000 rupees ($243) after fuel costs, vehicle maintenance (3,000-5,000 rupees, or $36-$61) and car owner’s commission (20,000 rupees, or $243). Additionally, her son, who works as a salesman, earns 15,000 rupees ($182) a month, and her father-in-law gets a pension of 2,000 rupees ($24) a month.

Total expenses for the month: 40,706 rupees ($494.81)

An Uber driver in Delhi, India
Sheetal Kashyap, 45, is an Uber driver in Delhi, India [Courtesy of Kajal Kashyap]
Sheetal Kashyap, 45, is an Uber driver in Delhi, India [Courtesy of Kajal Kashyap]

“I usually get three to four hours of sleep, not more than that,” says Sheetal Kashyap. “No matter how late I go to sleep, my morning starts at 7:30am. Then the usual chores of cleaning, cooking, getting ready, and I start taking rides by 9am.”

As a rideshare driver for Uber, she drives around the Indian capital every day, working to find passengers for about 18 to 19 hours before returning home. Ride requests are not always consistent, so she does take breaks, usually to have tea or eat a meal. But the long hours have taken a toll, and her health deteriorated in March.

Sheetal says she does not want more women to work the job she has. “Why should women join these professions? We didn’t have a choice, but others who do should not join.”

Her reasons: safety concerns for women rideshare drivers and no easy access to washrooms during the workday.

“We install these SOS panic buttons in our cars for around 12,000 to 20,000 rupees ($146 to $243), but it never works,” she says, referring to the buttons that connect to Delhi emergency services in case of an accident or if the driver is in danger. These are installed by car sellers and are mandatory for all commercial vehicles in the city. Uber also has its own in-app button that connects to emergency services.

In January, Sheetal’s friend and fellow driver, 30-year-old Priyanka Devi, was attacked by two men who tried to rob her while she was on her way to pick up a passenger at 2:45am. “Her neck was cut by a beer bottle, and she was bleeding and got no help even after using the SOS button of her car,” Sheetal says.

“After this incident, many women are reluctant to drive at night,” she adds. “It's usually easier to drive at night because there is less traffic and congestion on the roads, which helps in saving fuel. However, such incidents scare the women drivers as we find no help.”

A house in Delhi, India
Sheetal and six family members share a small house in Delhi [Courtesy of Kajal Kashyap]

Some customers try to take advantage of women drivers, she says. When a fare does not match the ride-hailing app’s initial estimate, which may happen because of traffic or a route change, they walk off without paying drivers the full amount.

While male drivers also face mistreatment, women are particularly vulnerable in Delhi, a city where crimes against women increased by 41 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Sheetal raises another major concern: “There are hardly any washrooms that we can immediately find while driving.” She says this is also a bigger challenge for women, who need an enclosed space to use the toilet.

Women drivers mark the petrol stations along their routes to keep track of nearby washrooms, but sometimes they do not allow drivers to use the facilities, she says, adding that there are private washrooms that charge 5 to 10 rupees ($0.06 to $0.12) per use but that you have to be lucky to find one.

Sheetal joined Uber as a driver in 2016 and says she hasn’t seen much improvement in her income or working hours, but some attitudes have changed. “When I first started, I would be rebuked [by male relatives], stared at by men [including neighbours and customers], judged, but now with more women joining, these problems have reduced.”

Like many other Indians, though, her earnings have not increased in tandem with the steep rise in inflation over the years, and Sheetal says it has become a daunting task to manage expenses. “Fuel has become so costly, but, compared to that, the prices of Uber rides have not increased.”

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar a bit taller than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Sheetal’s husband was in an accident in December 2021 and has not worked since. He remains on bed rest, awaiting ankle replacement surgery, so her earnings are the primary source of income for the household.

Over the past few months, Sheetal has been trying to increase her income. But things became more complicated in early March when her health deteriorated. She suffered from severe knee pain, and doctors advised her not to drive for a few weeks.

On hearing this, her biggest worry was not her health, but rather money.

Sheetal even took up part-time tailoring work, stitching blouses and other clothing, which earned her 1,000 rupees ($12) over one month. This was added to her income from driving, which she resumed in the latter part of March.

Spending thousands of rupees on her medical needs, though, was a major unplanned expense, so the family had to take out a loan to make ends meet, she says.

Sheetal’s biggest worry is that the family has no savings, and even the income they do earn is not enough to meet their needs, forcing them to regularly borrow money.

Still, she is grateful that at least they own their home, which they have lived in for 22 years. “The only respite that I have is that we own our house, and there is no rent,” she says.

Over the course of a month, from March 20 to April 20, as part of a collaborative project, Sheetal Kashyap tracked her expenses with reporter Sanghamitra Kar P.

Here are the expenses that tested her finances the most.

Expenses over one month

Cars drive on a road in Delhi at night
Cars drive on a road in Delhi [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]
Cars drive on a road in Delhi [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Gas cylinder

“We need a gas cylinder every 20 days. This month, it cost us 1,103 rupees [$13]. Last year in the beginning, it was somewhere close to 750 rupees [$9] and then went over 1,000 rupees [$12],” Sheetal says.

In India, gas cylinders are the most common fuel used for cooking both at home and in commercial spaces.

The price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders increased four times last year. While the prices of domestic gas cylinders vary from state to state based on their tax policies, each household is entitled to 12 cylinders at subsidised rates annually, and if they need more, they can be purchased at market value.

Starting in April, the cost of commercial LPG cylinders was slashed by 91.50 rupees ($1.11) in Delhi, but the cost for domestic cylinders remained the same.

April 2022: 1,053 rupees ($12.84)*
April 2023: 1,103 rupees ($13)

Medicines on a table at the dispensary in India
Different types of medicines sit on a table at a government dispensary in India [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

Medical bills

Sheetal visited a government-run hospital in Delhi in March. Although the medical care is not free of charge, it is comparatively cheaper than a private hospital. She had to spend 14,000 rupees ($170) on tests. Added to that, her medicines and nutritious food that she was asked to eat are costing her 1,500 rupees ($18) per week during March and April.

“Although I went to a government hospital, it has created a huge hole in my pocket,” Sheetal says.

To compensate for the unexpected expenses from her medical care in March, the family is still cutting down on their other costs.

“These are the kind of expenses that are unforeseen, and people depend on savings for such rainy days, but we haven’t been able to save at all, which is why we are facing so many issues,” Sheetal says. “Our income has not increased after COVID, but costs of almost every item have gone up. How to save?”

March 2022: None
March 2023: 20,000 rupees ($243)

People shop at a vegetable market in Delhi
People shop at a wholesale vegetable market in Delhi [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]


Sheetal and her family spend nearly 200 rupees ($2.43) on fresh vegetables every day. The family spends another 10,000 to 11,000 rupees ($121 to $134) every 15 days to buy flour, rice and oil.

They usually buy chicken once a week or once every two weeks, and 1kg (2.2 pounds) of chicken costs 250 rupees ($3). But they prefer to have eggs more frequently. An egg in India costs 5 to 7 rupees ($0.06 to $0.08).

They also buy milk costing 120 rupees ($1.45) on a daily basis. The cost of milk has been regularly shooting up over the past year. For instance, popular milk brand Amul in India increased its prices a few times, the latest being in February.

“Since my income is not fixed, sometimes we need to cut down on our groceries or if we have guests to attend to. During these times, we cut on meat or milk or other expenses,” Sheetal says.

April 2022: 11,000 rupees ($134)*
April 2023: 15,000 rupees ($182)

An illustration of prices rising in the past year in India.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]


Compressed natural gas (CNG) is commonly used in Delhi to run all types of vehicles. Its advantages are that it is cheaper and emits much less pollution compared to petrol or diesel.

Over the past year, CNG prices have risen and fallen a few times. In Delhi, it currently costs 73.59 rupees ($0.89) per kilogramme, down from as much as 79.56 rupees ($0.96).

“The way the prices of fuel have shot up, it is scary,” Sheetal says.

“I don’t own the car. I only drive it. But I need to pay for the fuel charges,” she says. “Twenty thousand rupees ($243) of my earnings I give to the owner, and I also need to manage if the car needs any services like washing, tyre puncture. That usually comes to 3,000 to 5,000 rupees ($36 to $61) a month depending on the services.”

October 2021: 45.50 rupees ($0.55)* for 1 kg of CNG
April 2023: 73.59 rupees ($0.89) for for 1 kg of CNG

An Uber driver in Delhi, India
Sheetal in the car she uses to drive for Uber [Courtesy of Kajal Kashyap]

Six quick questions for Sheetal

1. What is one thing you had to forgo this month? My daughter wanted me to stitch a lehenga (an ankle-length type of skirt usually worn on occasions like weddings) for her. And we did go to the market to buy the material, but it was 200 rupees ($2.43) per metre. We couldn’t afford to buy the material, so we had to let it go this month.

2. What is the hardest financial decision you have had to make this month? We still haven’t been able to cover my last month’s medical expenses, so we are still trying to manage that. This month has just been about that.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Due to the scorching heat in Delhi, we had to buy an air cooler, which was 7,500 rupees ($91).

4. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? We should control our urge to splurge on things like clothes and other things. These expenditures are under our control, and we can save in these areas. But some expenses are not under our control. We should save to manage those unexpected expenses.

5. What is your biggest money worry? My daughter is 25, and I need to arrange money for her wedding. With no savings, I am worried about how to go about it.

6. What is the savings hack you are proudest of? I do not have any such trick for saving.

*Previous years' costs were sourced from Sheetal Kashyap.

A woman's face can be seen in a car's rear-view mirror
A woman drives a car on a road in Delhi [File: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters]

Al Jazeera offered Uber the right to reply to statements made in this article. A spokesperson responded with the following comments:

“We continue to be committed to making Uber an attractive and viable option for drivers to earn flexibly. We have continually reviewed fares and made changes to offset impact of external factors. Last year, we hiked the fare across key cities to offset the impact of the rise in fuel prices.”

“Uber has formulated a code of conduct under its community guidelines, to maintain safety standards for both riders and drivers. We have created multiple touch points for drivers to reach us in case they face a problem. Through our in-app emergency button, they can connect with the local law enforcement directly in case of an emergency. They also have the option to connect to an Uber support agent through dedicated 24x7 phone support. Additionally, our RideCheck feature that proactively detects trip anomalies also sends a message to the driver to check their wellbeing in cases where the vehicle has been stationary for longer than usual duration, when it goes off the recommended GPS route, or when the trip is ended abruptly.”

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera