Households feel the heat as kitchen gets expensive with rising food pricesPeople are cutting down budget for meals, as plates have become more expensive in what is termed ‘lunchflation’.
Lal Bahadur Dangi remembers the days when he used to pay Rs5 for a cup of tea. In less than a decade, the price has jumped five-fold.
But Dangi has not seen an increase in his wages for years. The unorganised sector, where most Nepalis earn their living, has been shattered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then fuel prices shot up like a rocket, putting many foodstuffs beyond the reach of low-income people. For these reasons, the current inflation bites deep.
“Everything has been getting expensive each passing year. But this year, prices have reached exceptional levels,” said Dangi, who has been working as a porter at the Kalimati Fruits and Vegetables Market for two decades.
“Our earnings have not increased. Not at all. It’s hard to eke out a living,” said the 46-year-old Dangi who hails from Rolpa, one of the remotest districts in midwestern Nepal.
A porter charges between Rs20 and Rs150 per trip, depending on the load and distance. “It was the same rate five years ago,” said Dangi, who makes Rs800 to Rs1,200 daily.
Every morning, Dangi spends around Rs40 on his breakfast—a cup of tea and a doughnut. “Lunch—which is dal, bhat and tarkari—costs Rs120,” said Dangi.
The prices of essential commodities took off on an upward trend last month, putting greater pressure on vulnerable households, according to a market survey conducted by the World Food Programme. Prices of edible oil, wheat flour and pulses rose sharply, the report says.
Under the food and beverage category, the prices of ghee and oil rose 22 percent, milk products and eggs increased 11.22 percent and pulses and legumes rose by 9.13 percent year-on-year.
“Inflation in Nepal has gone beyond control,” said economist Bishwambher Pyakuryal. “Many essential food items we use are still not included in the food basket to calculate the consumer price index.”
Steep inflation has led to shrinkflation, which economists say is a business strategy of downsizing the package to reduce quantity. Manufacturers give less for the same price—which people hardly notice—to keep the business running.
The World Food Programme says that as a result of rising food prices over the period, the cost of the food basket—including rice, pulses, vegetable oil, egg and vegetables—shows a persistent increase.
For example, the cost of the food basket increased from Rs70.2 in April to Rs75.1 per person per day in June 2022, a 7 percent increase.
“This can further pressure the ability of Nepali households to access basic food commodities, which are critical for maintaining their food security and nutritional status,” the United Nations humanitarian agency said.
The outlook for the global supply chain and market indicates continued disruptions, and it is anticipated that prices of these commodities could increase further in Nepal in the coming months.
People in the Asia-Pacific region are already cutting down their budget for lunch as it has become more expensive, especially in urban areas, according to international media reports. The trend has been named “lunchflation,” which refers to the steep rise in lunchtime meal prices.
In South Korea, people have started to share tips on cooking a decent meal from the leftovers to reduce grocery expenses. In Singapore, people started to consume food that’s past its expiry date or a bit damaged but still quite edible.
In Australia, people are reducing food expenses by eating out less and cooking more at home.
“Since we stay in a rented room in a group, it is more economical for us to cook food. We cannot imagine eating out,” said Dabal Singh Sunar, another porter.
While the cost of vegetables keeps fluctuating, the prices of other food items have gone through the roof, said Salina Bohara, who was shopping at the Kalimati market on Friday evening.
“We have been forced to cut our food budget by reducing consumption of various items. We hardly go to restaurants nowadays.”
Lunchflation has entered the kitchen of a former minister too.
"Despite being a Member of Parliament, I have only one vegetable item in a meal at my house these days," said former foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali recently. His remarks have gone viral on social media.
“I, at least, am not in a position to afford two vegetable items in a meal,” said Gyawali.
“I became a minister and have been a member of parliament for many years. If a member of parliament like me is not in a position to afford two vegetable items for a meal, I wonder how people below the poverty line, and those working in the informal sector, are sustaining themselves these days.”
While most people on social media criticised Gyawali for his “two vegetable items” remark, the former foreign minister, speaking in Parliament, said he was trying to highlight the inflation issue.
“Instead of discussing inflation, I was trolled,” said Gyawali. “How can this issue be addressed if it is diverted?”
Restaurant owners say they too have been feeling the heat of inflation for months. While some have already increased the prices on their menus, some are considering doing so.
"While we have not raised the price of a simple meal consisting of dal, bhat and tarkari, we have raised the prices of tea slightly and of momo, chow mein and some other food items by Rs10 per plate," said the owner of a restaurant at Thapathali, Kathmandu.
Despite inflation affecting the lives of the majority of the population, observers say the stakeholders are not doing enough.
“There used to be protests in the past, but it seems there is no opposition now. There are no protesters on the streets. There are only rulers reared and nurtured by middlemen, contractors and traders,” he wrote.
"Our market monitoring mechanism is lethargic," said economist Pyakuryal. “Inflation caused a crisis in Sri Lanka. If our political leadership underestimates the current situation, it can bring political turmoil beyond their imagination.”
Hari Pangeni, spokesperson for the Department of Commerce, Supplies and Consumer Protection, agrees that prices of food items have increased sharply. But he claims that the department has been carrying out regular market inspections to prevent hoarding and artificial price hikes.
“The department takes action on the spot if traders are found charging exorbitant prices,” said Pangeni. “However, since we have adopted an open market policy, the market determines the prices. But we investigate when the price hike is artificial.”
Consumer rights activists charge that the government has failed to regulate the market and opportunist traders are taking undue advantage of the situation.
“Consumer rights have never become a priority for the government,” said Madhav Timalsina, president of the Consumer Rights Investigation Forum.
He said that the government’s ad-hoc decisions had prompted a rise in inflation.
The government has made it mandatory for importers to keep 100 percent margin amount to open a letter of credit to import certain goods and has also banned particular goods designating them as non-essentials.
A recent Oxfam report entitled Profiteering from Pain said that every 30 hours, one billionaire is born while nearly one million people crash into extreme poverty.
The government also stands to benefit from rising prices, as seen in oil prices, say consumer rights activists.
“It is the people that suffer,” said Timalsina.