In Times of Recession, Rani Martin’s Story

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In my last post I wrote about one restaurant owner in rural Tamil Nadu who said that most people in India have been unaffected by the economic downturn. His point was that rural people — most of India’s billion plus population — are used to surviving on very little income, with very limited means.

Still, it’s not always that simple — for many families the recession has certainly brought trying times.

Not only have many jobs been lost within India, ex-pats are being laid off overseas and forced to return home; many have already come back from the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. In Malaysia, some businesses are letting go all of their foreign employees, many of whom are Indian, and they’re replacing these jobs with native Malays to ease the financial difficulties faced by their own people.

Many people I meet here are finding it more difficult to pay for the everyday essentials. Even with a recent government tax break on fuel, petrol still hovers around a dollar per liter; in the markets, the price of the cheapest rice is still above thirty rupees (about sixty cents) per kilogram, a steal by American standards but expensive here.

Rani martin

Rani Martin, above, is a 62-year-old widow from the village of Calachel in southern Tamil Nadu. She used to be a teacher in Chennai, but last fall, when the financial crisis took a turn for the worst, she lost her job and her apartment. Her two sons, both in their late twenties and unmarried, had left home to find jobs in Mumbai and Bangalore.

Ms. Martin’s husband died suddenly a few years ago. They were living near Goa, where he was an assistant manager of a dairy factory. After his death she and her sons moved to Chennai, and she found work in professional schools teaching computer skills. She did well and was able to invest in some property and computer equipment. She opened a business offering computer instruction and pay-by-the-hour web browsing.

In the space that she rented in Chennai, one room was for web browsing, the other for doing outsourcing work from, primarily, businesses based in the United States. Ms. Martin said that it seemed like a good way to earn some extra money.

Early last year she signed a contract with Chennai-based Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). The arrangement specified that she would work with BPO middlemen who received the typing, proofreading, data entry, and/or page alignment materials from different American and European companies. The middlemen then passed the work on to people like Ms. Martin who hired their own employees to do the time-consuming computer work.

The way Ms. Martin describes it, the American companies’ money goes directly to the middlemen and is then intended to be distributed downward. As the economy went south last fall, she said that she was never paid for the week she did; instead, they cited a clause in the contract stating that, while the base pay was five rupees per page, if the work done was less than 95 percent accurate, the contractor was not entitled to any pay at all.

She could no longer pay the monthly mortgage on her apartment plus the rent for the computer center. Her residence was seized, and she fled south towards her native village.

Ms. Martin is now renting a one-room apartment in Nagercoil, near her native village Calachel, for about thirty dollars per month. She now has no income and her savings leftover from her late husband are quickly dwindling. She calls the apartment “temporary.”

“For now,” she says, “I have to live like a refugee.” There is no furniture, and she sleeps on a straw mat on the floor. Her sons, unable to find work in the bigger cities, were living with her here for the last six months, but they’ve since left.

“They have the freedom to take all from me,” she said. “Because they are my sons, I cook for them and pay for everything. Now, they’ve left and will not care for me. One has a job, and I know he bought a new mobile phone instead of sending me some money.”

When I asked her about other job possibilities — something local near Nagercoil instead of waiting to be re-hired in Chennai — she shook her head. As an educated woman, she will not take a job that she feels she is overqualified for; she says she is waiting for another teaching job to open up in Chennai. She talks about working for an “international service organization, human rights, or the environment.”

Her parents’ former residence, where she was raised, is less than ten kilometers away, but her two brothers now own and rent that house, and she doesn’t feel comfortable asking for their help. Other family connections have not provided much help, either: her husband owned and rented some rural property near Nagercoil, but after his death this went to his younger brother instead of to her.

With job prospects slim and getting slimmer, Ms. Martin does not feel very optimistic, but she’s finding that she can survive on very little. It’s very hot in southern India — daytime temperatures in much of Tamil Nadu near forty degrees Celcius — but she barely uses the ceiling fan in order to save on the electricity bill.

“I don’t mind sleeping on the floor,” she said. “It’s just how we have to live sometimes in India.”

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