RBI fights inflation but Indian consumers don't feel the benefits

Getty Images

India's central bank governor Raghuram Rajan may have reshaped monetary policy and brought down consumer inflation to the lowest in years, but convincing people like housewife Shaila Pai that prices are under control is proving a tough challenge.

Entrenched expectations of high inflation in India are feeding into higher wages and other prices, which could tie Rajan's hands even as he faces growing pressure to cut interest rates for a fourth time this year to help a patchy economy.

Pai, a mother of two in Mumbai, says she has yet to feel any benefit from official data showing inflation is easing. Her living costs are as high as they have ever been and the family is cutting down on travel, eating out and personal spending.

How is India similar to Southeast Asia?

"The biggest part of our household expenses goes towards education, food and medicines, and all of them are very expensive. We can't cut corners much there," she said.

"I expect hospital, food, education costs will continue to rise in the double digits."

She is not alone. A survey by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) this week showed households expect consumer inflation to hit 10.1 percent within three months, almost double the current 5.4 percent and a level not seen since late 2013.

At its latest policy review on Tuesday, the central bank kept rates steady but held out the prospect of another easing after cutting the policy rate by three-quarters of a percentage point so far this year.

Read MoreWhy a weak monsoon won't rain on India's parade

"Price pressures are building up and these are sticky," said a senior policymaker familiar with the RBI's thinking. "We are cautious. We have to see whether core inflation will feed into headline numbers or not."

Cost of living rising

Since becoming governor in September 2013, Rajan has refocused policy on consumer inflation instead of wholesale prices. Earlier this year, the government and RBI agreed on adopting a target to keep inflation between 2 to 6 percent.

While that looks on track for now, core inflation, which excludes volatile fuel and food prices, has risen for the past six months, and reached around 5 percent in June.

A 16.2 percent surge in urban wages in the January-March quarter, the biggest increase in 11 quarters, is a key driver of core inflation.

"In everybody's mind, inflation is hovering at 8 percent," said Anandorup Ghose, a partner and head of rewards at Aon Hewitt, a global human resource solutions company.

"For companies to give salary increases less than 10-10.5 percent, it almost seems like you are not giving a real pay increase compared to inflation."

Read MoreWhy the RBI's next move is a 'very close call'

Other costs are also starting to rise, according to the RBI.

Among the biggest increases have been in education, an expense few middle-class households in India are willing to cut.

Education costs rose 7.23 percent in June, the biggest jump among the sub-sectors in the core CPI data, followed by clothing and then household goods and services.

Rajan on Tuesday indicated the central bank would closely study the pace of inflation expectations and the way it impacts consumer behavior.

"If we really want to manage inflation, we have to look at the sum total of inflation, especially the inflation that confronts consumers because that is what determines things like household savings behavior. It also determines the wage pressures that will come," he told reporters.