New Internationalist

Supermarkets battle for India’s soul


Remember the time before supermarkets? Not likely, unless you’re pretty ancient. Western countries were taken over long ago. And it’s happening now in India in larger cities. The big news here is that the government is allowing foreign direct investment to enter India. Which means Wal-Mart and Tescos will be all over Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata like a rash. Supermarkets began hitting India roughly ten years ago. But they are still inefficient, unfriendly and not hugely popular.

However, just like the average Brit, the average Indian can’t resist a bargain. And the supermarkets offer these on a regular basis. So families will go to the supermarket only to buy 20 kilos of rice if it’s a huge saving. But in a city like Bangalore, for example, except for the fairly wealthy, people prefer their friendly corner shops. Supermarkets will find it hard to compete with the personalised service our small grocers offer.

In Gudalur, the small town we’ve lived in for more than twenty five years now, I can phone the shop and read out my list of groceries, pick it up all packed and ready and pay at the end of the month if I'm broke! It keeps my monthly food bills really low as I tend to buy only essentials for an average Indian kitchen – rice, whole wheat flour, sugar, lentils, oil, spices.

The minute I enter a Bangalore supermarket, I end up spending about five times my normal budget – I pick up bargains: new, exciting-looking, non-essential stuff. I walk out, knowing I've been really silly. The average Indian does not like to waste money, except for the new younger generation, the IT, corporate world executives who earn so much, a few hundred saved on groceries is less important than their time.

India's poor survive because they are enterprising and use their ingenuity to reinvent themselves to survive. They don’t have a choice. If you don’t work and go that extra mile in the city, you would die of starvation. There's no safety net. No unemployment cheque on a Wednesday to keep your head above water. So when washing machines arrived for the middle classes, dhobis, India's intrepid army of washerfolk, moved into a new occupation. They set up small mobile ironing carts. You see them at every street corner in our metros, ironing huge piles of clothes with heavy duty, coal irons.

In Bangalore, I am charmed by the village atmosphere of the residential areas. I hear vendors announcing their wares in a sing song, a distinctive cry which reminds me of my childhood in Kolkata. Freshly baked bread was delivered to every doorstep by the bread man with a lightweight circular cane pannier on his head. Vegetable vendors arrive to haggle amiably with their regulars – there are varieties of greens, okra, tomatoes, gourds of all kinds – all offering fresher produce than the supermarket. Fruits follow and a plethora of other intriguing kinds of goodies.

This is life in middle class areas, not in the gated communities, the skyscrapers where the super rich live. It’s a nicer, more human sort of existence when you can chat with the vegetable vendor, when the ironing woman tells you her woes, when you can complain sociably about the rain or the scorching summer temperature.

I think, the average, urban Indian still prefers this kind of existence to the lure of impersonal megastores which, for most, allow only window shopping. The business page today announced that small shops are forming co-ops to fight the huge retail giants like Wal-Mart and Carrefour.

The David vs Goliath battle is likely to be televised. I think most people will wish them luck. Parliament is furiously debating foreign direct investment with the entire country watching. I certainly hope Real India manages to survive.

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