menu

Ian Jack: Will Walmart Cause The Death Of Traditional Indian Life?

Ian Jack: Will Walmart Cause The Death Of Traditional Indian Life?
Advertising

The country's street sellers will almost certainly vanish once foreign supermarkets are allowed into the big cities.

Ian Jack, The Guardian
  • 25 september 2012


Powered by Guardian.co.uk
This article titled “Centuries of Indian life could be extinguished by the arrival of Walmart” was written by Ian Jack, for The Guardian on Friday 21st September 2012 21.30 UTC

Certain habits in Indian life once gave an illusion of permanence. On hot afternoons 30 years ago, for example, you could lie on your bed under a slow-turning fan and hear noises from the street that had been the same for at least a century. The lonely wife in Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata heard them in the film’s celebrated opening sequence as she flitted about her Victorian mansion in 1870’s Calcutta like a trapped butterfly, and in 1982 you could hear them still: some rhythmic chanting, the hollow patter of a little drum. And if, like Charulata, you went to the window and looked down, there in the dusty lane you would see a gang of coolies shouting something like a work-song as they pushed a wooden-wheeled cart with a heavy load, or a street entertainer drumming up business with his tabla. The most common sounds, however, were the singsong calls of peddlers selling fish or vegetables, or milky sweets and ancient biscuits from a portable glass case. Some salesmen rode bicycles; that transport apart, these were scenes that looked as if they had existed for centuries and would never be expunged by modernity.

Their extinction is coming – not immediately and not everywhere, but probably inexorably in the middle-class districts of the big Indian cities, now India’s governing coalition has said it will open up the retail market to foreign supermarket chains. The coalition put the plan on hold last year after some of its smaller parties, notably West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, branded it as against the interests of “the common man”. The postponement suggested a weak and muddled government. Economic growth was faltering, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, looked particularly ineffectual, and the administration’s reputation suffered the lash of critics at home and abroad (not least in the USA). Last week it decided to face down opponents and show its free-market muscles by reviving planned reforms that will allow familiar European and American names – Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour — to build stores in cities of more than a million people, providing the local state government agrees.

Western supermarkets arrived in China several years ago and there is now hardly a country in the world without them. India’s resistance came out of what Louise Tillen, an academic at the India Institute in King’s College London, describes as a “compound of opportunism and ideology” in a democracy that tolerates dissent and political fixes, but that resistance looks to have collapsed. The government says the marketing, technical and managerial expertise of the big supermarkets will transform food production and consumption by cutting out middlemen and building the system known as “the cold chain” that delivers fresh food swiftly from the field to the shelves. The farmer gets higher prices, the consumer pays lower ones and less food is wasted: the supermarkets hire staff in their thousands, no food rots in the warehouses.

Perfection! Unless you are a middleman, or one of India’s 12 million small retailers, or a peasant farmer with a crop yield too insignificant to interest Walmart, or a street vegetable peddler. The process is known as “retail Darwinism”. In Vietnam, to quote a recent survey, a supermarket needs 1.2 people to sell a tonne of tomatoes rather than 2.9 people for every tonne in more traditional distribution channels. In several large Indian cities, fruit and vegetable sellers have already seen their incomes cut by up to 30% since the advent of smaller Indian-owned supermarkets; the powerful giants from abroad could bring far larger changes.

How does India’s cultural elite – with apologies for that clumsy phrase – feel about this revolution? To judge from my friends there, some feel anxious, hopeless and sentimental: emotions familiar to the supermarket’s enemies everywhere. One of them writes from Delhi that the vendors who come to her door selling vegetables, milk, flowers and fish are “one of life’s greatest pleasures”.

They do their rounds on environmentally sound bikes, while supermarket shopping needs cars and car parks. “We fear all this will go,” she writes of the old pattern of vendors and neighbourhood shops and bazaars, adding that in India’s hierarchical society to shop at a supermarket has an exclusive appeal, a generalised version of the Waitrose cachet, because until now they have specialised in prepared rather than fresh food and have prices (and security guards) to keep out the poor. “In my view,” she says, “they are urban, classist, expensive, sell packaged stuff and restrict the right of entry. It could hardly be worse.”

Or, of course, better – if you are a time-poor but cash-rich consumer and want to feed easily from the global cornucopia that you feel India has kept at bay out of the state’s fear of upsetting the small-farmer and small-trader vote, and its residual antagonism towards foreign corporations that goes back to its foundation.

Shopping in India’s pre-cornucopian times could be taxing. Say you lived in Kolkata with a generous family and wanted to treat them, to partly compensate for all the treats they had given you. This was my case. The family were my then in-laws, and sometimes for Sunday lunch, as a break from fish, rice and dal, I’d prepare a bastardised waldorf salad.

The city’s old covered market sold most, though not all, the ingredients. I would take a taxi to the market, where a porter carrying a straw basket on his head would attach himself to me as a guide and adviser. His basket would fill with apples from Himachal, limes from Bihar, walnuts from Kabul and cheese from Kalimpong. The really difficult item was the olive oil for the dressing, which could never be found in the market but sometimes at the Great Eastern Stores, a dark and usually empty shop whose trade had foundered when the last of Kolkata’s once-large British population decamped in the 1960s, leaving its assistants with memories of tinned prunes, Worcester sauce and other delicacies whose supply lines had dried up.

All this would take a morning. It made an interesting quest for someone like me with an outsider’s curiosity and time on their hands. Few Kolkatans, unless they were rich in domestic servants, would have gone to such trouble to prepare something so foreign. The lunch felt like a triumph, and yet Kolkata was one of the world’s largest cities, a metropolis by its own account, and had once been the capital of the Raj.

Then, under the fan, we would nap. Sounds from the streets drifted indoors: snatches of Hindi film music, the slap of wet clothes on a laundry slab, a taxi honking, the calls of itinerant food vendors. A whole world waiting, though we didn’t know it, for luxury and variety to arrive in the form of the shopping mall, Walmart and Tesco.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

Image via Time.

Advertising
Trending

Volvo's Self-Driving Trucks Will Soon Be Put To Work In An Underground Mine

Automotive
Automotive Yesterday

Toyota Is Using Sewage To Power Its New Electric Car

A new hydrogen-fueled vehicle is driven by what we flush away

Culture Yesterday

Catch A Concert On This Small Floating Island

A man-made archipelago in Italy is hosting music and art performances

Trending

Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Design & Architecture Yesterday

DIY Kit Lets You Build Your Own Wooden Bike, Boat Or Caravan

Woodenwidget says its detailed guides are suitable for beginners and experienced woodworkers alike

Related Expert

Erica Kochi

Development, Social Good, Technology

Design Yesterday

Crash-Friendly Drone Made From LEGOs Is Completely Rebuildable

The clever device offers games, education and the uniquely rewarding experience of destroying your high-flying airship

Fitness / Sport Yesterday

Free Sneakers Given Out To Motivated Marathon Runners

Strava will give the shoes to athletes who run the second half of their race faster than the first

Culture Yesterday

Someone Invented A Robot Just To Serve Trays Of Beef Jerky

Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz, in partnership with Chef's Cut Real Jerky, creates an automated snack delivery system

PSFK LABS REPORT

Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry
NEW

PSFK Op-Ed september 28, 2016

Energy Expert: How American Consumers Are Taking Control Of Their Power Use

Jennifer Tuohy, green tech expert at The Home Depot, discusses green home technologies and developments for renewable technologies in US homes

PSFK Labs Yesterday

The 10 Steps To Discover, Hire, Develop Your Next Leader

PSFK's Future of Work report outlines key steps in the employee development path to empower next-gen leaders

Millennials Yesterday

Why A Social Networking Site Decided To Rebrand

Meetup, a platform that connects like-minded individuals, has taken steps to stay relevant amongst millennials

Work Yesterday

Editorial Roundtable: The People-First Workplace Should Borrow From Tradition

Managed By Q, Soma, Workbar, Primary, AltSchool and thinkPARALLAX underline the old-fashioned ideas that deserve a place in the Future of Work

Op-Ed Yesterday

Digital Design Expert: Mobile First Is Dead, Think Mobile Native

Brian Cooper, chief creative officer of OLIVER Group UK, explains how some brands are still playing catch-up to new technology

Fashion Yesterday

Handbags Crafted From An Old NFL Stadium

People for Urban Progress is an up-cycling program that tackles the waste problem of big demolitions

Work Yesterday

Tech Job Site Created Just For Those Who Are Older Than 30

A new occupational job board presents a creative solution to age discrimination in the tech world

PSFK LABS REPORT

Future Of Work
Cultivating The Next Generation Of Leaders
NEW

Europe Yesterday

Architect Turns A Giant Smile Into A Public Exhibition

The structure offers visitors a new perspective of London and creates an immersive environment that integrates structure, surface, space and light

Children Yesterday

Norwegian Kids Are Using Their Phones To Log Unsafe Street Conditions

Travel Agent is an app that gamifies the reporting of hazardous conditions to improve the safety of children's commute to school

Travel Yesterday

Google Wants To Help You Plan Your Next Trip

A new app curates vacation itineraries and organizes reservation emails to take the work out of planning a getaway

No search results found.