Food prices; a bricks and mortar problem for Indian economy

Thu Dec 26, 2013 4:06pm EST
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By Rajesh Kumar Singh and Aditi Shah

GURGAON, India (Reuters) - Three months since journeying more than 700 milesfrom his village in central India to take a job in this bustling city near the capital, New Delhi, Charan is already looking forward to a 10 percent pay rise. He isn't an engineer or programmer. He hauls bricks and sand at a local construction site for less than $100 a month.

India's biggest cities face a worsening shortage of migrant manual laborers like 26-year-old Charan, who goes by only one name. While India has long suffered from a dearth of workers with vocational skills like plumbers and electricians, efforts to alleviate poverty in poor, rural areas have helped stifle what was once a flood of cheap, unskilled labor from India's poorest states.

Struggling to cope with soaring food prices, this dwindling supply of migrant workers are demanding - and increasingly getting - rapid increases in pay and benefits.

"After paying for food we are left with almost nothing. We need a wage hike," said Charan, who sends a part of whatever he and his wife, who works at the same site, manage to save to their parents back home in Chhattisgarh state.

If their employer refuses to give them an adequate raise, they are confident they'll find better-paying jobs at one of the hundreds of other sites dotted around Gurgaon.

Such gains by migrants and the rural poor don't come without a cost to the rest of the country.

More than pressuring corporate profits, these rapid blue-collar wage increases threaten efforts to quell inflation by India's new central bank chief, Raghuram Rajan, the former International Monetary Fund economist who took over as governor at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in September. Rajan has made price stability a policy priority, calling it a prerequisite for reviving economic growth that has slipped to 5 percent a year, the lowest in a decade.

Despite little evidence that interest rates can control food prices, Rajan has raised rates twice since taking over to prevent food-price inflation from spilling over into the wider economy. He has warned of another hike next month if prices don't cool significantly.   Continued...

A labourer works at the construction site of a residential complex in Kolkata December 21, 2013. India's biggest cities face a worsening shortage of migrant manual labourers. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri