The last few days have seen big debate around the issue of retail foreign direct investment (FDI). It has split politics as well as business into two opposing camps. 51% for FDI is a huge amount, one that could change the retail landscape in India, perhaps forever. One of the conditions for this proposal is that multi-brand companies should source at least 60% of their farm produce from small farmers. The justification is that this will give a boost to small farmers but there is an inherent flaw in the argument. Since the 1970s, farmers in the US actually make less because they supply to big stores and the same thing could likely happen in India.
The second argument is that this FDI will create jobs. However, nobody is talking about the kind of jobs it will create and the kind of jobs that it will threaten, namely the small grocer and kirana shops that is the hallmark of any Indian neighborhood. Finally and most worrisome of all, nobody is addressing the kind of down-the-line problems FDI will create.
The model of multi-brand supermarkets is hardly working nor is it sustainable. It involves massive supply chains ranging from remote corners of the globe, encourages consumerism, cheap produce and planned obsolescence. It creates more waste and more pollution.
India already struggles with massive infrastructural problems with waste management –what is the proposal to deal with the excessive amounts of waste created by the FDI investment? What about actually making space for building the Walmarts, Tescos, Carrefours that propose to come in? What is going to happen to home-grown super-market chains? Are Indian cities going to look like soul-less American ones with no character and only neon signs and parking lots for decor?
The multi-brand supermarket is a failed business model even in those countries that pioneered them, notably the United States. The more enlightened shun these business establishments and are moving towards encouraging local produce. If the Indian government is really serious about encouraging small farmers, then they will be rejecting GMO and making sure locally produced organic food is more widely available. If the government is serious about creating jobs then they should be focusing on improving sectors within the country namely waste management, agriculture and infrastructure development.
The great experiment of consumerism in the United States that started off in the 1950s is moving into India in leaps and bounds with advent of malls, multiplexes and now multi-brand supermarkets. However, now this model of consumerism is showing serious cracks – instead of using resources to come up with something that works, something that is progressive and fits in with the Indian ethos, why do we insist on blindly following something that does not work?
The way I see it, the retail sector in the country does not need a new business model. India as a country needs a new business model that embraces the principles of long-term sustainability and eschews the policy of short-term financial gain. Let the supermarkets go create jobs, encourage farmers and flood shelves with cheap Chinese products in their own countries. India need not follow suit, indeed India should not follow suit.
This country needs to be developed from ground-up in a holistic manner. All we are currently doing by encouraging foreign investment that does not fit in with systematic growth is focusing on the embellishments whilst the foundations lay crumbling.
[The article has been written by Akhila Vijayaraghavan. She is the Founding Director of the GreenDen Consultancy, perhaps the first of its kind to employ a knowledge-share basis to tackle socio-enviro problems holistically. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She has vast experience with waste management, holistic business models and socio-environmental development. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. ]