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.
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 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.