I’ve always been told by my Indian friends that I should respect the local economy and pay as close to the going rates as possible, and I generally try to do that. However, living in a small village where the average wage is pretty low, I’m starting to rethink this idea.

Like everything else in India, nothing is so simple. In the big cities and tourist areas, it is routine to simply charge foreigners double or triple the going rate. This is something that grates on me and I do my best not to comply. In other words, I bargain hard.

However, here in the village, where a driver may earn an average of Rs150 (less than $3.50USD) a day while his wife toils in the fields, I tend to feel considerably more generous. I had no hesitation in giving the driver who took me to town (it was a full day’s trip) and helped me with carrying all the things I was buying a Rs200 tip. He just said “as you like” at the end of the day—and he actually meant it! If a driver in a tourist area says that, he will almost invariably whine no matter how much you give him.

And I never bargain for produce unless it’s obvious that I’m being seriously overcharged. Since I rarely have to pay more than Rs 20 for a day’s worth of fruits and vegetables, anyway, I don’t worry about it. I give the farmer’s wife who delivers milk more than the going rate because she has to walk a long way to deliver it. Indians might pay her an extra Rs3 or so, but that seems unreasonable to me. Even the extra Rs10 I give her isn’t much, but it’s enough to make it worth her while.

Earlier this month, India’s Planning Commission, which helps sets economic policy, announced that the poverty line for the nation’s cities is a mere 578 rupees ($12.75) per person a month – or 2,312 rupees ($51.38) for a family of four! For rural India, it’s even lower at about 450 rupees ($9.93). Hello? Who can live on that? Especially considering India’s serious inflation rate. That hardly covers the cost of food for one person. And anyone who only has that much to spend on food is certain to be pretty undernourished. Even families living on five or six times that much have to struggle and watch every rupee. The poverty line determines who gets government assistance, but this is truly absurd, and downright heartbreaking.

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