I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about value and what it really means. There are so many layers to it.

When we were in Jaipur staying with B’s family, a woman would come daily to do some housework. She washes the floor with a rough cloth on her hands and knees daily, helps with laundry weekly, and washes dishes on occasion, if there happens to be some in the sink. I would guess that she spends an average of 2 hours per day doing housework. Her compensation for her work is 600 rupees per month, plus an occasional cash bonus here and there, some cash for birthdays in her family, and some gifts on major Indian holidays. 600 rupees translates into roughly $12 USD. For my math challenged friends, 50 rupees is about $1 USD.

I’m sure that someone better versed in economics can give all kinds of solid answers about supply and demand, and how markets determine prices. But sometimes, I just feel like prices don’t always correlate to value.

I feel that while that supply-demand system seems to work in a predictable way, for the most part, there is a deeper question about value at work.

I have a hard time navigating through the Indian value system sometimes. It pains me that house cleaners (servants, as they are called here, which makes me shudder…but maybe it is better not to candycoat what they are?) make such a pittance for the physical work they do. It pains me that a bicycle rickshaw driver pedals around in heat of 95+ degrees and gets paid such a pittance.

Yesterday, I walked to a market in search of better priced and fresher produce. It was a fixed price vendor, the prices were actually labeled, and the whole process was very transparent, which I appreciated on one level. The prices were similar to what I’d been finding near me, so while it was not better priced, at least the cashier couldn’t overcharge me without me noticing it.

I bought a few other things, like a bucket and some clothespins. Since it was over 95 yesterday, I didn’t really want to walk all the way back home carrying my load. I resolved in my mind that if I saw a bicycle rickshaw, I would take it. Sometimes, I get lazy and just leave my decision making to fate.

I started walking along, and met a free bicycle rickshaw almost immediately. It was an older man, probably in his mid-50s, with a bit of graying hair. He was thin, and he looked pretty tired. This was around 3pm, when it actually seems to feel hottest here. I called him brother, and asked him how much he’d charge to go to our apartment complex. He quoted me 30 rupees, which is higher than what B said it would probably be, but still within his acceptable range, so I hopped in with my bucket and bulging bag of produce. I’d just spent 95 rupees on onions, garlic, spinach, tomatoes, an orange, two eggs, and a few bananas. My bucket and clothespins were 105 rupees.

This photo is not mine; I just found it on Google images, which is why the quality is poor. I have never seen an overweight bicycle rickshaw driver. Both of these guys just look tired–the first one looks as though he has given up pedaling, and is just pushing the rickshaw at this point.

It was only a 5 minute ride, and along the way, I was thinking about what his life might be like.

I wondered about what led to his becoming a bicycle rickshaw driver. Did he have no other options? It is hard work, especially in the heat. He wasn’t carrying anything with him. What did he have for lunch? He probably needs to consume a LOT of calories to do his job. Can he afford it? How many family members does he provide for at home?

I also became conscious of having my water bottle with me. Should I offer him some? I don’t think people normally do such a thing here, but what do I know? I decided I would offer it to him, because if I were in his shoes, I would want someone to offer some to me in this crazy heat. I also considered paying him a lot more, because I just don’t know if the equivalent of 60 cents is a really fair wage for his labor.

This is what I mean by value, I guess. What is the value of that bicycle rickshaw driver’s efforts? Is it only the supply/demand relationship of what he’s willing to accept and what I’m willing to pay? What if what he is willing to accept is too low? What if supply and demand does not = someone being able to make ends meet? What if it is only because there are so many people who are poor that the supply far outstrips the demand of richer people who don’t want to walk home in the heat? What if he only accepts 30 rupees for his work, because he knows I can turn around and find someone else who can do it cheaper?

I wrote in my last blog post that I’ve heard lots of people say how great it is living in India, because having servants here is so cheap. But again, I have to say that it is only so cheap because there are enough desperately poor people who have no other alternative. It just sounds like unconscious exploitation of people in desperate circumstances to me.

The new pope, Pope Francis, commented recently on the tragedy in Bangladesh where a building collapsed and killed hundreds of people. The main victims were garment producers, and the factories renting the building are probably better known by their non-euphemistic name, sweatshops. The Pope said, “Living on [50 USD] a month, that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labor.” Indeed. Supply and demand tells us that is the value of their work. Is it?

The other thing that I have not mentioned so far is that in many instances in India and elsewhere, foreigners get quoted a much higher price than locals. This is another thing I wrestle with in my mind. Should the price be on a sliding scale? Should the people who CAN pay more do so? Should the vendors have the right to ask more from some people than from others, or is this unfair? Should they size me up without really knowing me?

Also, what usually ends up happening is that the vendors then start to build up a sense of disrespect/resentment for the foreigners, because maybe they just don’t understand the real value of a rupee and are careless. They are naive, and it’s easy to take advantage of them. I see this as the biggest downside of this dynamic. The psychological result when a person knowingly mistreats another person is that dislike begins to form, and respect for the person who was mistreated is diminished. This isn’t good, either.

Is it an exercise of humility to ignore these thoughts and just do what seems right anyway?

I didn’t pay the rickshaw driver more; I was just too undecided and my default was to just pay him what we agreed on. Maybe I’ll get more clarity later, and I’ll know what is a better option next time.

But I gave him some of my water. It took him a minute to comprehend what I meant when I held the bottle out to him and asked him in my poorly pronounced Hindi if he wanted some. He drank out of it the common way in India–holding the bottle well above his mouth and glug-glugging it straight down his throat without closing his mouth at all. He handed it back, and we went our separate ways. Me into the gated apartment complex we’re currently staying in, and him back out into traffic and heat.

I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who happens to read this blog if they have had similar experiences, or have suggestions.

For further reading, I just discovered this piece by Indian author Chetan Bhagat, and felt it was worth including.

This entry was published on May 10, 2013 at 3:34 pm. It’s filed under India and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

9 thoughts on “Value

  1. Hi dearie! I can understand your dilemma. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but we had a servant (a “didi” they call her in Nepal). It was a shock to me because I was supposed to be living “simply” and all that, but the JVs had hired her back when there were like 8 or 10 volunteers living together… Anne & I just couldn’t bear to see her go unemployed. We paid her far above the going rate, she only came 3 times a week, and we gave her bonuses and paid her medical bills (she was diabetic). And at one point, I was pretty sure that she was stealing from us, but I still couldn’t bring myself to let her go… it felt like we were a great source of livelihood for her, and no Nepali family would take on the cost of employing her when they could find someone far cheaper. I was very conflicted. The newer JVs that replaced us finally let her go, and I never did hear the whole story. I still think about that woman, Lalita was her name. I also remember doing the “if I see a rickshaw, it’s a sign” kinda thing! I remember one time literally only having 30 rupees in my possession, and knowing full well the rickshaw driver would charge more, so when he tried to sell me his ride and I kept saying no, explaining I didn’t have enough to pay him, he kept insisting. I finally got in and just paid him the pittance, and I remember feeling some of the conflict you describe–If I hadn’t taken the ride, he’d be 30 ruppees less for the day, but certainly his work was more valuable than that. I don’t have any answers for you, and I am not sure anyone does. I remember being shocked at the number of child servants in Nepal, as well, not sure if that’s as much as a problem in India. It was really odd. Some of the children at our school had servants carry their backpacks and walk them to school, and these servants were barely older than they were. Other children staffed the “tuk tuks” and they’s shout out the Route while holding on to the back of the vehicle, sometimes while smoking a ciggarette. It was so strange, and yet, until you mentioned this, I hadn’t thought about this in years. A lot of people in Nepal consider these servants as though they “rescued” these children from a life of poverty in the rural viallages, and like they’re doing these kids some big favor by providing them with employment, even though their family back in the village was probably paid one lump sum up front for their child’s service. Okay, I’m writing a novel. Anyway, nice to read. Hope you’re staying cool in the heat!

    • Jayme, we had some similar experiences in Tanzania. Bobby and I wanted to be committed to the JV live simply value, but had people pointing out to us constantly that we were dirty. We needed to sweep and mop our floor every day. Oh, and they told us we were harboring snakes in the yard because we didn’t cut the grass. Yikes. We still didn’t really plan on hiring anyone, but we had people coming to our door asking to do the work. One day, a girl we knew who worked at the school as a cleaner (Bobby actually gave the toast at her wedding) brought another girl to us asking us to hire her. We ended up agreeing to it, and I think we had her come 2-3 times a week. I don’t remember now. But we both really liked her, and she was sweet and honest, and very nice to have around. She thought we were hilarious with our weird habits and broken Swahili. We paid her well–much higher than the usual going rate. Our neighbor, a Maryknoller, also hired her to come on the other days, so she had two jobs that were safe environments to work in, and she was paid well. I haven’t really seen child servants in India, per se, but sometimes the woman who works for my mother in law will send her son or daughter to cover for her if she can’t come that day. I think they are about 11 or 12 years old.

  2. The only perspective I can offer on this is the laissez faire one – a fair price is what both participants in the transaction agree is fair. If the rickshaw guy is willing to pedal you around for so little (in your eyes), then he surely doesn’t feel as though he’s been ripped off in this particular transaction (though he may at times feel ripped off in general by life). And if you’d be willing to pay a lot more for this same service, then you’ve gotten some bang for your buck.
    None of this is any help, though, when you feel that the going rate for a certain service is far below what it should be. I wonder if most of the rest of the rickshaw guys’ customers also feel like they are getting bang for their buck/rupee? I wonder what’s keeping the rate so low? If a few of the rickshaw guys decided to charge more than the going rate, I’m sure their potential customers would simply say, “eff off” and choose to go with the next guy who comes along and charges less.
    The only guideline I believe there really is when it comes to price and value is “How much are you willing to pay? What’s it worth to you?” Always keeping the surrounding market in mind.
    I’m glad you offered that guy some water, I’m sure he just eats and drinks when he can, probably not very often.

    • See, Mare, that is the question, though. Is he accepting it because he thinks it is a fair price, or is it because he knows it is the going rate because there are so many rickshaws, and he will just take whatever he can get? I think in general, supply and demand works and is predictable to everyone, but in a case like in India where the supply of labor is so abundant, it seems like the prices are artificially low.

      If you were working in India, the going rate for your services is ridiculously low. I had a whole salwar kameez suit stitched for me for 90 rupees. And that was considered high, and only acceptable because the tailor we used is a whiz. But we essentially gave her a length of fabric, and she took my measurements, and made a tunic, and the funky baggy salwar bottoms all for 90 rupees. I don’t know how much time she spent on it. But she was paid $1.80 for her work. Another tailor nearby only charges 60 rupees, or $1.20 for all that work. But the quality is not as good.

      I am not advocating for government controlled prices. That happens in Ethiopia, and generally doesn’t work. I heard last year about the government lowering the price of cooking oil, and the result was that a sudden cooking oil shortage hit the country, because shopkeepers refused to sell it for such a low price, and simply removed it from their shelves and put it in storage.

      I guess I am looking at what the individual can do in such a situation. But I acknowledge that it is not straightforward, because of what I mentioned about the psychology behind the whole system of agreeing on a price.

  3. I recall having exactly the same thoughts on the subject, especially after I would find myself patting myself on the back for, say, having haggled a rickshawallah down from the foreigner price to the local price. “Did I really just spend 5 minutes arguing over a quarter?” I’d think. “But why should I get screwed over just because I’m not from around here?” There is no good answer, I think, other than to do what you feel is right when you feel it’s appropriate. Maybe you can bargain them down to show you’re not a pushover and that you know how to play the game, then give them a bit extra to show your appreciation for their mushkil kaam?

    • Aaron, B has done that a few times. We have gone around and around about what we can/should do about people doing some pretty serious manual labor. He advised his mom to buy vegetables from the guys pushing carts, because they are working so hard, and are likely a lot poorer than some other vendors. B had to go to look at an apartment on the other side of town, and had forgotten exactly how far it was when he was negotiating with the bicycle rickshaw guy. When he realized it, he gave the guy almost double what he had negotiated and an apology.

      I haven’t successfully done much negotiating here, but was decent at it by the time I left Africa. It was a lot more fun to do it there than it is here. People had a sense of humor there, and actually enjoyed the theatrics of the negotiation. I don’t get the vibe that anyone here enjoys it, and there are no theatrics. I think it is a cultural difference. Tanzanians loved to chit chat with strangers, but Indians don’t seem as warm about that. Swahili has a hundred different ways to greet people, but Hindi really only has namaste for Hindus and salaam for Muslims (which is actually Arabic, so nevermind…)

      • There’s also “adaab” for Muslims. 🙂

        I think I would disagree about the enjoyment factor in India, though, and I saw PLENTY of theatrics… though they’re a lot easier to pull off if you’re an Auntie. I think people do enjoy it — especially if they’re arguing with an Angrezi — but they’ve got some serious poker faces going on at all times and aren’t going to let you know that they enjoy it.

        • Well, that is good to know. I still don’t imagine using the flamboyance here that I would use in Tanzania, like asking people if they were trying to cheat me and shaking my fist, etc. At the end of those negotiations, there was usually some hand slapping and laughter, and a small gathered crowd to watch the theatrics.

          The sabjee wala I used the first few days in Gurgaon wouldn’t negotiate with me, and pretty much just stared at me without saying anything. Also, he seemed either drunk or high, so I have since steered clear from him. Most of the other places for vegetables walking distance from where we live are fixed price. And I’ve discovered that their fixed prices vary wildly from one day to the next, and from one shop to the next. I bought okra a couple days ago, and one guy was selling it for 60 rupees a kilo, and the shop right next to it was for 28 rupees a kilo.

  4. Lastly, lest people think that I’m just knocking India for this sort of thing, I acknowledge that the US has its issues, too. Here is an interesting motion graphic about wealth distribution in the US:

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