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Roxanne Power - Blog 1: Bargaining for Livelihoods - India

Roxanne Power - Blog 1: Bargaining for Livelihoods - India

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While staying in Delhi, I spent a day browsing markets with a friend in a popular district of New Delhi and soon found myself in a dilemma. It was a moment that has stuck with me, and it prompted me to write this blog reflection.

After browsing many stalls and pavement set-ups, interacting with vendors along the way, my friend and I agreed that we would look around the corner at another market close-by. On our way, a man selling post-cards approached us, and I thought I’d look for one to send home. It turned out he was selling an entire package (about 10+) but I just needed one and so I became hesitant - I didn’t want to waste the cards if I just needed one. He was firm that he could only sell the whole package and bargaining ensued after he saw my disinclination. Eventually, he settled on a price much lower than the first, and it was quite inexpensive (relatively, by my Canadian-mind’s gauge), so I decided to buy them – I could send more cards to family and friends, and frankly, it was the path of least resistance.

As we walked away, my friend told me that I should avoid engaging such sellers unless I am really interested because their livelihoods depend on it – once there is hope of a purchase, ‘no’ is no longer an option. Her words also prompted me to think a little harder about the amount I had just spent. Of course, I could justify it by saying he likely would not have accepted the price if he truly thought it unreasonable; but by my judgement, the product certainly would have been sold for more in Canada, still at a price I could have afforded. And it would be untruthful to suggest that this moment of awareness was not in part prompted by a pang of guilt. From what I’ve gathered, such a feeling is not uncommon amongst relatively ‘wealthy’ visitors to India. But it is more than attempting to reconcile uncomfortable feelings.

This cultural experience and process of bargaining was something entirely new to me. Yet, seeking out the most affordable option has long been a habit of mine, which for better or for worse has accompanied my life here in India. Things also become relative when you live in-country. Suddenly a 50-rupee (around 1.00 CDN) difference might seem like quite a lot when you consider that travelling through the city could cost 50-100INR and getting a good meal on the street could cost between 25-50INR.

The bargaining process is something that is easy to get swept up in, and it can shape our expectations in terms of pricing. There is even an abundance of articles aimed at foreign visitors discussing the practice of bargaining in India. This is in part due to the fact that there can be high premiums placed on products or experiences for foreign visitors.  After travelling around Delhi, I have learned firsthand that sellers may significantly multiply prices, and a site that costs locals 20INR may be a 500INR fixed-cost to foreigners. Though, such an occurence should perhaps be obvious, considering the financial inequity between many western visitors and so many people trying to get a sliver of space to make a living amongst countless others doing the same. (These are based on my observations and limited understanding about the local urban economy). What does this say about how we should or should not view our positions in the bargaining process?

Since my post-card bargaining experience, I have encountered the dilemma of cost and value in other forms: largely in negotiating auto (rickshaw) fares. I’ve also since had many local friends instruct me not to pay more than what it ‘should’ be (i.e., what they would pay). But is handing over that extra 25 rupees (about 0.50 CDN) and paying 50 rupees instead of 25INR going to make such a difference? Moreover, who does it make a difference to, and what is the impact? I have found that in general, it is not worth getting overly anxious over spending those 10-50-100 rupees more.

This experience/reflection taught me that a) if bargaining in the market for groceries, a ride, or a shawl for a friend, take a moment to think before getting swept up in the perceived injustice of paying more than locals; b) while discretion should be practiced, so should self-awareness (e.g., what is my intent in this interaction?); and c) I should expect to remain at odds with myself and assumptions while negotiating my place here through daily experience.

Though I’m still left wondering: can awareness to these economics promote a separation from the experience of immersion? What is the cost of constant comparison between local and ‘home’ expectations? Is it as simple as ‘paying more where and when you can’ if it seems to benefit the local economy? Could asking these questions contribute to or help confront a perspective of Western arrogance/privilege? In any case, these are some things to consider. I appreciate any feedback or thoughts!