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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  1. #3 Claudia 02 Dec 11

    You are so right! People everywhere are turning their backs on the vast, impersonal, cold (literally!) and highstreet-killing out-of-town super- and hypermarkets. In India they will appeal to those already living in gated and security-guarded places but they will never be able to replace the grocer around every street corner who stocks everything under the sun in just the right quantity and who has an intimate knowledge of the locality and hence a personal and personalised service. Shopping is above all a social experience and this will always be the kiranas' trump card over the too-big-to-fail superstore Goliaths.

  2. #4 John Pearce 02 Dec 11

    Its good to hear that Tesco and Walmart may not be all pervasive. They seriously have the potential to destroy community life.

    Best of luck

  3. #5 Cynthia Stephen 05 Dec 11

    Reports of the demise of unorganised retail in India are greatly exaggerated. because most families nowadays do buy small quantities of thier needs often, and fresh. Despite Reliance and Big Bazaar trying to horn in on the turf of the door-to door veg. vendor and corner provision store, homes often buy here on a running account. REal incomes of the masses have been falling steadily and there's no indication of them going up soon. And there's resistance to these huge stores anyway - remember the hooha when Metro cash and carry came in to Bangalore? nothing much happened, and neither did the rest make any huge dent in the situation except in the areas perhaps where the IT sector reside, which are usually relatively plush enclaves - at best less than 20% of the pop. of a city like Bangalore. Let them come, and try. I think our retailers and buyers can give the FDI hyper/super markets a run for their money. Better guys than they have tried and not made much headway.

  4. #6 Alpheen 05 Dec 11

    Those were the days my friend.. We'd thought they'd never end.......
    Those were the days my friend those were the days.....

  5. #7 Katy 05 Dec 11

    Lets hope the invasion of the supermarkets, chains and huge stores can be held off. We lost our campaign to keep Tesco from taking over our local shop and regret the loss of the the friendly cafe that has been replaced by a chain coffee shop. The big supermarkets may have good deals and shopping on-line may save you from carrying heavy shopping bags home, but it doesn't make up for what's disappeared in their place. I remember going to pick up bread and milk, as a child, and being given sweets by the shop owners - now I'm just beeped at by the automatic check-out machine when I scan my shopping myself...

  6. #8 Sushil 05 Dec 11

    Thanks Mari! And if it's any consolation, in the U.S. we are seeing that farmers markets- a weekly bazaar where farmers sell directly to the consumers- are seeing a resurgence all across the country. We also are seeing the growth of CSAs- community-supported agriculture and food co-ops. I work at a community law center where we provide legal services to people who want to start food cooperatives and we are seeing a huge surge of interest, probably inspired by the Occupy movement.
    Let's hope this David v. Goliath battle goes global!

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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