By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
NEW DELHI -- Every morning, Hindu devotees haul buckets of fresh, creamy milk into this neighborhood temple, then close their eyes and bow in prayer as the milk is used to bathe a Hindu deity. At the foot of the statue, they leave small baskets of bananas, coconuts, incense sticks and marigolds.
But recently, Ram Gopal Atrey, the head priest at Prachin Hanuman Mandir, noticed donations thinning for the morning prayers. He knew exactly why: inflation.
With prices soaring for staples such as cooking oils, wheat, lentils, milk and rice across the globe, priests like Atrey say they are seeing the consequences in their neighborhood temples, where even the poorest of the poor have long made donations to honor their faith.
"But today the common man is tortured by the increases in prices," Atrey lamented during one early morning prayer, or puja, adding that donations of milk were down by as much as 50 percent. He had recently met with colleagues from other temples, along with imams from local mosques, who reported similar experiences. "If poor people don't even have enough for bread, how will they donate milk to the gods?" he said. "This is very serious."
From Haiti to Senegal to Thailand, prices for basic food supplies have skyrocketed in recent months. The increases have been attributed to a confluence of factors including sharply rising fuel prices, droughts in food-producing countries and the diversion of some crops to produce biofuels. In India, milk prices rose because of increases in gasoline prices, which made it more expensive to transport the product from dairy farms to cities.
The U.N. World Food Program has said that more than 100 million people are being driven deeper into poverty by sharply rising food prices, which have sparked riots and protests from Bangladesh to Egypt. The crisis is serious in India, where nearly half the children younger than 3 are undernourished, a higher rate than in sub-Saharan Africa, according to UNICEF, the U.N. agency for children.
In New Delhi, the price of rice rose by 20 percent and the price of lentils by 18 percent in the past year. Cooking oil prices have climbed by 40 percent over the same period. The price of milk, which is essential in both diets and religious rituals, rose more than 11 percent in the past year.
Milk is literally the nectar of gods in India. Most temples in the south use it at least twice a day to bathe Hindu statues, since it symbolizes the eternal goodness of human beings and is seen as a generous offering to the faith.
Across the country, milk also symbolizes life and death. Bodies are anointed with purified butter before cremation. Milk is a main ingredient in paneer -- a cheese-cube dish known here as the king of all foods -- as well as yogurt, curries, tea and sweets. And milk is often the main meal for children younger than 5.
While poverty rates in South Asia have decreased in recent years, more than 400 million people remain under the poverty line and account for nearly 40 percent of the world's poor, according to the United Nations. Although India's soaring economy has generated service-sector jobs, most of the workforce is still made up of men who lay bricks, sell fruit, or are hired as day laborers, making them among the most vulnerable to a spike in prices.
Munapar, a father of eight who lives in a makeshift camp of migrant workers, said he came to New Delhi in hopes of a better life. Instead, he has found hardship.
"We had to stop eating lunch. And we had to completely stop drinking milk," said Munapar, who is from India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, one of the country's poorest and most lawless.
Munapar's wife, Rukshana, pointed to their youngest, Mavis, a weak and gaunt-looking 5-year-old. "He wants milk and biscuits, but we don't have enough," she said. "If a child is feeling distress, the mother also feels the pain."
"In the village, we had food," Munapar said, picking the flies off his children, who sat barefoot and listless in the heat. "But here, we can't plant. We can only buy. We know that others in India live comfortably. Meanwhile, we are suffering."
Victor Aguayo, the chief of child nutrition and development at UNICEF's New Delhi office, said the agency was investigating the full extent of the impact of price increases on children and women. Already, he said, officials know prices are escalating at rates they have never before seen.
Indian newspapers have been filled with headlines about the increases, especially for milk, since many Indians are vegetarians who depend on milk and its byproducts. At a roadside tea shop in the capital, Raju Kumar, 33, said his sales for milky chai have dropped by half in the past month, while the price of milk keeps rising.
"I feel sad because I can't give my children the bread and vegetables they dream of," sighed Kumar, a father of three, as he scooped cups of boiling milk into a pot filled with black tea.
At a hilltop temple in New Delhi, visitors headed inside for a 6:30 p.m. puja, during which the statue of a Hindu deity would be bathed in milk, sandalwood paste, water and honey. S. Shanti, 27, said she came to pray for a job in India's railway service.
With prices rising and a lack of work, she said, she had less to offer to the temple.
"How can we manage?" Shanti said, as she looked over at other worshipers bearing small baskets of bananas and coconuts. "God please grant my wishes. Things are so costly now. We need help."
Special correspondent Ria Sen contributed to this report.