Transnational corporations. India
The end of India's own markets?
Indian vegetable, fruit and spice street market traders. Are these and small farmers and producers about to be driven out of business by transnationals?
Our news team reports. Late last year the Indian national government announced that it was going to open up the country to transnational corporations. These include food retailers such as US-based Walmart, France-based Carrefour, and UK-based Tesco. After furious opposition from other political parties and state governments, the move was put on hold, but in September the national government coalition made its final commitment. The transnationals are coming.
This move is still opposed by some Indian state governments. The reasons are not merely sentimental. Relevant government ministers and advisors throughout the global South know that giving transnational corporations freedom to do business in their countries, results in massive loss of employment in rural areas, among cooperative and family farmers, and also national and local retailers. By their nature, transnationals have no special attachment to any country. Their business is to increase sales and market share and to make increased profits for their shareholders. Their methods include taking over or pushing aside smaller businesses – and virtually all national industry, even in great countries like India, are smaller than transnationals.
Many middle class customers welcome transnational business in their country, much as they welcome multi-media entertainment and before that Walt Disney and Hollywood. Big supermarkets also offer a vast variety of goods and food supermarkets stock fresh produce coming from producers who are local or at least from the country. But the greatest impact is on small farmers and traders, whose produce does not interest supermarkets, and who become increasingly seen as relics of the past by communities whose income grows.
Another impact is on whole ways of life – food culture, and also traditional and long-established ways of being and living which are so attractive to travellers and tourists and to Indians who love the special nature of their country. Will these now disappear? Evidently not in some Indian states. But here Ian Jack, one of the most celebrated writers in the world, previously of the UK Sunday Times and editor of Granta, who has deep experience of the country, reflects on what transnational penetration of India may well mean to much of what people who love India hold most dear.
Ian Jack on transnational India
Extracted from a Guardian feature. 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 most common sounds 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 is 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… 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 per cent 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… 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