What Can I Get for $1 in India?

A quick answer to that question is “a lot.”  Yesterday, for example, at a roadside chai walla my small cup of chai was 7 rupees (~$0.15 at 45 rupees to $1 USD).  I have paid as much as 20 rupees for a chai and as little as 2 rupees.  For an American like me, it is very cheap to live here and live here well.  For an average Indian?  I’m not so sure about living well but they manage.

$1 lunch: a typical southern Indian thali meal

Most economists predict that by 2020, India will be one of the leading economies in the world.  But according to UNISEF, an average Indian person made ~$1,000 USD in 2008 and IMF ranks India as 127th in the world based on GDP per capita (~$3,000 USD).  To understand better how much things cost in each country I have a habit of going to a local grocery store when I first arrive and looking at food and beverage prices.  I typically look at water, soda, milk, and see what it’ll cost for me to get a loaf of bread.  I know that my brain is trained on New York City prices (and therefore everything seems cheaper everywhere else) but doing this quick comparison gives me a good framework for the monetary value in that country.  When I tip someone I refer back to the price of a bottle of water or a loaf of bread, and think whether what I am giving him is reasonable.  In places like Vietnam, Cambodia, and here in India more often than not the thoughts that run through my head are not so much about whether the tip amount is reasonable but more on what an extra 100 rupees mean to me in my life.  The extra 100 rupees could go a long way for someone here where as the $2.25 it represents in mine is likely to be an afterthought.

I learned that the therapists at the ayurvedic center where I stayed for 2 weeks made 170 rupees per day, working 9 one-hour sessions each day.  They were able to take a day or two off each month but for the most part, they worked 7 days a week.  I’m not sure whether they worked all year round (I was there during their high/dry season) but if they did, they would be a bit ahead of the national average and take home about $1,400 per year.  Most of the drivers who took foreign tourists around a city or transport them from one city to another, made 3,000 rupees a month (that’s 100 rupees a day), which adds up to $800 per year.  Sayed, a driver I had in Mysore, gave me the same figures.  He was working for an agency so he drew a monthly salary (whether he worked everyday or not, but he said he worked everyday) of 3,000 rupees (or less than $70 per month).  He has a wife and two little boys at home who depend on this income.  He told me his rent was 1,200 rupees and his electricity per month was close to 400 rupees (yes, the high cost of electricity is everyone’s concern here in India).  With the remaining 1,400 rupees (or $30), each month he needs to feed and make ends meet for his family of four.  I’m paying 1,750 rupees per day for my apartment in Chennai.  Does that sound ridiculous when you know that it’s more than what this Indian family of four has to live on for a month?  Of course I can afford this but it feels borderline obscene to me.  This is another reason why I feel that I don’t need all this “luxury” here in India and my apartment seems out of touch with the realities outside these four walls.

While I’m on the topic of these drivers I should add that it is quite normal for them to drive a passenger for a week or two across the country.  My driver in Kerala, Glancy, took me from Allepey to Periyar, Munnar, and to Fort Cochin in about a week.  He was a freelancer and received a flat fee for his services, from which he had to pay for all tolls and gas, and for his own expenses while traveling.  But if you worked for someone or you’re a company driver, along with the 300 rupees per day you are paid you are provided with a daily stipend of about 250 rupees to eat and to find accommodations.  You have basically $5.00 USD to feed yourself each day and to also sleep somewhere.  Glancy had friends in most of the places we went to and were able to meet up with friends and stay over with them.  But most other drivers have no other option but to sleep in the car to save more money.  Some of the hotels and guesthouses have a room for drivers who are accompanying their guests, and at some restaurants the drivers can eat something simple for free, but it certainly is not an easy life.

I’m sure that our driver yesterday was paid about 300 rupees for taking us to Mahabalipuram (a full day tour).  But the guide, who failed to explain anything and neglected to show us one of the top attractions in Mahabalipuram (Arjuna’s Penance), wanted the 13 of us to pay 350 rupees per person.  We thought that was the agreed price and thought it reasonable (less than $8) so we did.  However, when the manager from KYM called to see how the trip went he mentioned to us that we shouldn’t pay more than 200 rupees per person.  By then we had already collected all the money and paid the guide, so the point was mute.  Even though I knew that I’d get ripped off at some point in India it bothered me at first.  I think that was one of the reasons why I wanted to have an active evening practice after such a long day and to think about it.  In the end I did refer back to what the extra 150 rupees (~$3.00) mean to me in my life versus what it can do for him here in India, and wished my tour guide well.

How much things cost in India: note that some of the prices below are actual “listed” figures and others are for foreigners like me.  Local Indians will definitely live on less and pay less for the same things.

: 1 liter bottle of water- 15 to 20 rupees (15 for local brand of filtered water, 20 for Aquafina).  We have a water filter at home so I fill up my water bottle each day.  The plastic waste in this country is out of control.  It’s one of the big problems I see here along with sanitation, infrastructure, education, disparity of income, pollution, etc.

: A loaf of bread (similar to a loaf of Wonder bread)- 20 rupees ($0.40)

: 5 bananas, 4 oranges, 1 big papaya- 100 rupees ($2.00). I think this is probably for a foreigner like me and a local person would pay less.

Fresh coconut water

: Fresh coconut water from a roadside vendor who hacks off the top of the coconut for you- 15 to 20 rupees ($0.30 – $0.40).  I’m told that the price has doubled in the last three years.

: Lunch at a clean local vegetarian restaurant including tip and a cup of tea- 50 rupees to 100 rupees ($1.00 to $2.00).  I can have an “all you can eat” southern Indian thali meal for 40 to 75 rupees.

: Lunch at a roadside hut and a roadside chai- less than 15 rupees ($0.30)

: Mobile phone- too cheap to comprehend (see my post on Indian mobile phones here)

: Internet- I have wi-fi at my apartment but if at an Internet café, it can be about $1 per hour.

: Entrance fees to Indian monuments- 100 to 350 rupees for foreigners ($2.00 – $7.50), 10 to 20 rupees for Indians ($0.20 – $0.40).

: Haircut: My landlord told me I could go to a nice place and pay 500 rupees (~$11.00) but she frequents a place where she pays 150 rupees for a haircut (~$3.50).  My regular haircut in NYC was $70 and that wasn’t at a fancy place…

: In Bangalore I hired a rickshaw driver for 100 rupees per hour plus tip.  For an AC car and driver, I can expect to pay about 10 rupees per kilometer or $0.35 per mile.

Some statistics I read on India:

: About a third of the world’s poor live in India.

: World Bank estimates that 80% of the population in India lives on less than $2 per day.

: Calculations and definitions of the “poverty line” differ widely but the figures I’ve seen range from 35% to 45% of the country living below the poverty line (living on $1.25 or less per day).  But these figures are significantly less than 30 years ago when it was ~60%.

: Majority of Indians live in 10 ft by 10 ft space per person, which includes their sleeping, eating, cooking, washing, and toilet areas.

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14 Responses to What Can I Get for $1 in India?

  1. asami says:

    Thanks for another enlightning post.

    My employer’s largest office in the world is in Guragon, and some of the hardest working people I’ve ever worked with are in this office. I have no idea what their annual salary is, but I think that no matter what they make, it is not worth sleeping with your BlackBerry and waking up every time it buzzes for an incoming email and feeling like they are on call 24/7 (many have told me that this is what is expected of them). I know it’s not my role to worry about it, but I care about my colleagues and wonder how they must perceive the disparity between them and their American colleagues, especially for those who have the same roles. At least I know they can eat very well for very little!

  2. Thank you so much for your informative post. I live in the United States and have been working with some contractors in India. It is nice to be able to get a comparison of prices so that I can know how to “tip” or what is a fare wage. Thanks again!

  3. lunasealife says:

    Interesting; but the larger question is, does money=happiness? Are most Westerners happier than most Indians? Do the Indians who are “ripping people off” have “better” lives than those who have less money? It’s interesting to examine the underlying assumptions…

    And I feel like these comparisons just illustrate the absurdity of the money system in general.

  4. Peggy Tee says:

    This is a great post and very useful for posting actual figures for actual purchases while in India. I will be referring to this post when I start planning my trip to India – some day!

  5. Thank-you for your wonderful article, I just randomly googled and found you. I am considering a trip to India to visit my friend who moved back there in 2006 from Montreal
    I now live in Florida and my friend is in New Delhi.
    Since your article was written in 2011 have the prices gone up drastically?
    My friend wants to go to Berlin ( she has rented a apartment there) and travel all over Europe.
    My question to you is, what should I do? Fly to Berlin and meet her there or fly to New Delhi and go to Berlin from there.
    It seems to me that I would be spending a lot more money by flying first to India and then to Berlin.
    The issue also is I really want to see India, what would be the lowest cost way to do all of this? Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated.
    I really do not know much about India, I am very lucky to have my friend there and I also have another friend in India as well, he designed the logo for my company TangoBear Buckles.

    Thank you again,
    Christine

    • Hi there, thanks for your note. I returned to India last year and found the prices in line with the previous year even though the exchange rate has gotten more favorable to the US dollar. India is inexpensive in comparison to the US that I don’t think you will find the price fluctuations (+/- 10% or 20%) all the noticeable. As for your other questions regarding flights, etc- I would first think about when and how long you want to be traveling. Both times I’ve gone to India I made sure I was there from November – April to avoid the most extreme weather conditions. If I go back to India again this year it will likely be again in November/December. If that’s also the same time frame you’re thinking, Europe is not as pleasant to be traveling around unless you’re in the southern part of Europe. My flight from Paris to India (via Doha on Qatar) was almost canceled due to heavy snow in France two years ago. More often than not Berlin/Germany is freezing cold in December as is England, France, etc… So I would think about either going to India directly first and then visiting Berlin on the way back to the States in the spring, or going to Europe in the fall and then heading to India for the winter months (North American winter that is). I have flown Qatar, Emirates, Thai, and Turkish Air to/from India and have had very good experiences with all of them. It depends on where you’re flying from but Qatar is great if you want to go down to Kerala first (they fly to TRV from DOH) so you don’t have to take an internal Indian flight. Otherwise fly to DEL or BOM as for your point of entry. I don’t know if there are direct flights to Berlin from Florida or to India for that matter- you may have to go through London or something. I use Kayak and Skyscanner to compare best prices on flights.

      For traveling on the cheaper side in India, I would say consult Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. Lonely Planet is used by practically every tourist in India… I used LP and Frommers, FYI, a digital version on Kindle. I traveled mostly on trains and airplanes, never once took a local bus – but most of the people I met in India did travel by bus. I never felt comfortable doing so myself since I was traveling alone as a female, and the driving conditions/drivers in India aren’t the best… I booked my train tickets in advance before I leave for India because the Indian websites within India only works with Indian credit cards a lot of the times. One tip- you should print out all of your flight details, etc. before landing in India- they won’t let you inside the airport without it. They may also insist that you have a return ticket out of the country- they have never checked mine but the airlines made sure I had them printed out and ready before boarding my flights to India.

      Feel free to ask me any questions you might have- I can send you a note back to your e-mail address if that’s easier, too. Happy planning! India is a BIG country, to say the least… pick out what you’d like to do/where you’d like to visit and start from there… BTW, flying within India isn’t that expensive either. There may be some delays but I fly whenever it saves me time (i.e. 30 hour train ride from Chennai to Delhi vs. flying directly). But trains are GREAT- I always book the first class-reserved cars- it’s not that much more $ and I find it a lot more peaceful/safer/calming.

  6. Ritzz says:

    This is so helpful, thank you very much. i amllooking to do an internship in India and was worried I’d be underpaid to really enjoy the whole country a long term position. If all goes well, I no longer see this as being a problem!

    • I’m really glad that my post was helpful to you. I returned to India last winter for about a month (to Kerala) and found not much had changed as far as cost of living is concerned. if anything, the US dollar has gotten stronger against the rupee which provided even more purchasing power in India… Best of luck to you with your internship search!

      • Ritzz says:

        Thank you very much for your help. I’m a little worried, it seems the expected pay for these internships are about $400 a month, do you think that would be sufficient for all living costs plus more to actually enjoy the country ?

  7. am so glad I found this, I booked my first trip to India this feb for under two weeks, its good to hear I should consider booking any other travel before I get there. are the fees to change currencies high?

    • The currency changing fees depend on where you are doing it- I find that airports are typically the worst places for it. Wherever I go (India or elsewhere), I usually withdraw $ from an ATM since I get the best rates through my bank. There are Citibank ATM’s in major Indian cities as well as at bigger airports (although the one I tried in Mumbai didn’t work for me a year ago). Even if you plan to use an ATM, it’s of course always a good idea to carry some cash with you, especially in places like India where credit cards are not always taken. I typically have some U.S. dollars and some Euros with me. I don’t know where in India you’re headed but in touristy places vendors will take USD. Do make sure that they are in good shape (no noticeable writings or tears) though…

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