Why does India want to import a misery called Wal-Mart?

By AN 'Shen' Sengupta

Having been in the US since 1958 , and after watching India's march towards development, I had hoped India would set its own unique path which other developing countries - and even developed countries - could emulate.

Instead, what we see is a mad rush to replicate the western model at any social and environmental cost. Compared to India, the US is three times as large in land area and has one-third the population. It is still a 'frontier' country. Simply put, what works for the US - if it does at all - may not work for India.

The model provided by super-everything - including super-size retail, to be served by super-size parking lots and super-size trucks, served, in turn, by super-wide highways - does not seem appropriate for a densely-populated, land-starved and people-scaled India.

 Why does India want to import a misery called Wal-Mart?

The truth is Wal-Mart faces stiff opposition from every community whenever it proposes to open a shop there. Reuters

Like the majority of the middle-class in the US, we live in a treed neighbourhood on a half-acre plot. Even to buy a loaf of bread, we need to drive at least two miles. The nearest bus stop is two miles away and needs one half to an hour of waiting in rain or shine. We have little choice but to shop in a mega-store chain. For almost anything and everything there is only a mega-store chain - whether one buys groceries, building supplies, clothes and household goods, cars and furniture, or seeks services like healthcare or restaurant food.

Hopping into a car and driving from one to the other is the routine here. On the other hand, when we visit India, it is a dramatic change. We can do all that on foot, virtually at our doorstep. And if we need to we can hop into a taxi or a bus, which come in a continuous stream. No waiting!

Granted, everywhere there are people, and lots of them. Granted, not everything looks hygienic. But these problems need to be attended to as issues by themselves and not merely by importing something which may 'cure the disease while the patient dies'.

The government announced the policy of opening up the Indian retail market to foreign direct investment (FDI) very recently. The reactions of small and medium manufacturers and shopkeepers, and civil society groups, including Anna Hazare, on the one hand, and the response of the government, on the other, were along expected lines. The FDI policy has been currently put on hold, but it has not been rolled back.

It is the import of mega-store chains that is hard to accept. We will use Wal-Mart as the prominent example of FDI, since it has been mentioned most widely in the media.

What has Wal-Mart done in the US? The truth is Wal-Mart faces stiff opposition from every community whenever it proposes to open a shop there. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why Wal-Mart, or other mega-store chains, think that the grass is greener on other unsuspecting shores of India. A somewhat comparable scenario is the case of the tobacco industry. When it found the going tough in the US due to growing health concerns, it found fertile territory in India, where the younger generation now smokes a lot.

An important point to underscore is what India will lose when foreign mega-store juggernauts replace the existing options over time. Not only will tens of thousands of small and medium entrepreneurs be wiped out, but along with them will disappear a long-established way of life in India.

Today, the string of small shops in the neighbourhood, with shopowners selling fresh and rich merchandise with a personal touch, is like an extended family. This family provides not only vital social interaction but also security and a lively and pedestrian-friendly urban environment around the clock. It is a give-and-take situation in which everyone wins, including the whole city.

Ironically, this is what has been lost in the US, thanks to mega-stores, mega office buildings and mega transport arteries slicing through urban areas; many towns and cities are now trying desperately to bring it all back at tremendous cost - bring back what India has and is needlessly proposing to lose in the name of beneficial competition and illusory export gains!

Wal-Mart may hire some of the entrepreneurs and their employees as its own employees. It has some two million worldwide. But will any self-respecting person want to work as a hired hand under conditions imposed by Wal-MartT ? Would he not rather own his business? But whichever way he turns, he will find his options circumscribed by mega-store chains.

Wal-Mart sells cheap, but this oft-assumed widely-held perception deserves close scrutiny. This merchandise is too often made in China. If, in India, there is already a flood of China-made goods in the market, the flood will become a tsunami when Wal-Mart arrives. If today the US has literally lost its supremacy to China in the realm of manufacturing and has a mountain of debt and unacceptably high rate of unemployment, why would it be any different for India?

Add to that the fact that the suppliers in China are squeezed so hard that they find no choice but to use tens of thousands of labourers, including children, pay them a pittance and oblige them to work extended hours in harrowing conditions. Can India compete with China in manufacturing goods cheap without resorting to extreme violations of human rights?

Wal-Marts range in size between 14,000 to 21,800 sq metres. That is only the building or 'box' itself. The parking and other service areas for container-size trucks occupy another 1.5 times the land area. The entirety is one enormous paved site devoid of almost any but a few token trees. It is a heat island and, as such, an environmental disaster for customers and the general neighbourhood.

The store itself is a very high-ceilinged warehouse, in which endless aisles stock mostly cheap Chinese merchandise of all kinds. Wal-Mart's grocery and garden sections constitute only a tiny fraction of the total merchandise. How that insignificant quantity will benefit India's farmers is very hard to understand.

The external wall of the entire building is windowless. There is an entrance for customers in front and collapsible doors for the merchandise in the rear. A mega-store is bound to be served by hundreds of automobiles, which, in turn, would require massive freeways and add to urban India's air-pollution problems and energy-woes. It is a far cry from the humane environment that the India of the present and the future can aspire to have.

Lastly, and very importantly, no one but a security person meets and checks out a customer inside the entrance lobby. Only a few helpers man the gigantic store. One can get occasional help in finding things, but after a long wait. Our rare visits leave us rather cold.

It is the same with most big boxes and there is no alternative. This is a far cry from the existing 'extended family' that greets today's retail shoppers on foot every day in India. Shouldn't India build on the asset it has instead of replacing it with what does not work even in the country of Wal-Mart's origin?

The author is a retired architect settled in the US

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 05:54:54 IST


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