Walmart: A case for the big-box? | Guest

Walmart: A case for the big-box?

Walmart smiley face logo

Location, location, location.  Real-estate propriety long established, it is now the creed co-opted by anyone who can see in a physical presence, a political stance—Naxals seeking rights to ore laden lands, urban planners channeling the efficacy of slums, writers contesting literary legacy with regional identity  —it is a handy and heady mantra that helps make every point precisely because it doesn’t really have one. But in a few rounds of travel scrabble, it morphs from boiler plate banality to a fairly forceful triple threat:  Location=> allocation=> dislocation  make it the fulcrum on which the whole FDI in retail seesaw (and other contentious imbalance) rests. When another flag is planted on the ground, who benefits, where are the gains allocated and who loses out, what are the displacements? For no particular reason other than its global reach, the FDI pennant has been emblazoned with the cheerful blue and yellow of Walmart. Those who oppose it gather under the tricolour pennant of India, as champions of the charkha, where they claim as moral high ground a weedy patch of victimhood.

The ‘big-box bully’ is a well-established apostrophe and Walmart’s imminent incursion on Indian shores bears on its back apprehensions of the organisation’s immanent evil. In left-leaning ideology the name is shorthand for the cruelties of capitalism. The Walton family occupies four of the ten spots on America’s wealthiest business people list and to devour such an outsize slice of a global equity pie is surely an indication of greed, irresponsibility, a gluttonous profit seeking motive devoid of moral context.  It’s conversely also the blueprint for corporations seeking to replicate its scale and success—I imagine multiple clusters of suits gathered at convention halls staring upon whiteboards, which in blue marker ink and block capitals ask only  WHAT WOULD WALMART DO?

And now that its  arrival is inevitable, what will India do? The reforms could be the sweeping changes of a government finally ready to take a stand or the straggled response of a crouched and cornered premier concerned with legacy. There are merited arguments for each. That one of the clauses will enable the presence of large-format retailers in a country already confused about its nascent but burgeoning consumer ethos, is undeniable.  But the protests tend to toot only the one tedious note, that we are relinquishing some sort of autonomy, that it is a betrayal of our tradition, that we will find our markets flooded with the rest of the world’s rejects.

 “The tragedy is that our prime minister has begun to worship the US,” said Sitaram Yechury, a veteran Communist Party leader. “Congress wants Indians to be slaves and foreigners to be our masters. We will not accept foreign direct investment in retail. We will protest this decision till our last breath.”

Grandstanding is a favoured political posture and unlikely to change, but the now  commonplace conflation of globalisation and imperialism has really gotten grating. Another politician perpetuating the hogwash of swallowing the western  world’s backwash is LK Advani, who compared New Delhi’s position to New York’s; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “rolled out the red carpet for Walmart” on September 14, the same day “New York City shut Walmart out” he railed.

And so? Walmart’s practices of suppressing labour unions, paying substandard wages, setting unrealisable goals for its employees, exploiting  social welfare systems, and sourcing  goods from exploitative facilities were perhaps best thrust front and centre in Robert Greenwald’s 2005 documentary Wal Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. But none of this has much to with why Walmart has butted its head against the protected brick walls of New York City. While public opinion swings widely, and feasibility studies differ on the percentages of socio-economic displacement and what just and equitable mitigation measures might be, it is essentially underlying city zoning that Wal-Mart hasn’t been able to control for. It has offered to throw money at the problem, compensate the mom and pop shops it will displace; develop green space around the city to offset the aesthetic assault of its singularly soulless signature structure; abide by the strictest of wage and compensation legislation; even patrol its parking lots, notorious  as hotbeds of crime, with guards in golf carts; and provide substantial evidence that its presence will actually stimulate the economy, to counter the popular apocryphal contention that for every two jobs Walmart creates, it loses three. But for New Yorkers aggrieved by a basic violation of a hard to quantify ‘neighbourhood character’ it’s never quite enough (read hysterical(!) reasoning here.

Walmart hasn’t in other words, been able to square the triangle of location, allocation and dislocation. First the human resources and environmental violations got embedded into public consciousness by a powerful PR juggernaut that coalesced around the damage done in the initial, reckless and callous expansion. Then any chance it stood was flattened by the twin rollers of  small business owner alliances and political filibustering. New Yorkers read and nod at their newspapers that cite obscure and statistically unsound studies which claim Walmart would like to put 159 stores in their city. It is a distorted number designed to elicit horror based on the already implanted fear that Walmart can quick march untrammelled through peri- and sub-urban neighbourhoods. It is a bit ridiculous. As a case in point, Target, equally big-box, but with a much savvier advertising blitzkrieg continues to flourish in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

If Walmart did half of what it offered New York (figure of speech, but with some reasonable analysis and modelling could be a precise numerical fraction) simply for the opportunity to sell New Delhi everyday goods at low prices, it could be the corporate conscience of India. Raising bastions now  while complacently chewing on McAloo Tikkis is somewhat schizophrenic. But opposition parties aren’t pitching their cautionary catechisms as reprimands about the costs of consumption, they’d get skewered on the spokes of the India Shining revolution.  Instead they’ve allocated the profits to big bad videsh and dislocated the small-scale farmer, the backbone of the Indian economy. Who bothered to figure out where an average Indian consumer fits?

Whether Walmart sources produce locally, recreates the entire supply chain, builds larger cold storage facilities, modifies its footprint for denser urban configurations, stocks Chinese electronics or artisanal goods, are all choices we’ll endorse with our rupees. If the trends aren’t heartening, it may be because we’ve already picked a side and the monuments to our excess now glitter glassily in Gurgaon.  The putatively sterile plastic packaging around a maggot infested cauliflower soured me forever on Apna Bazar, the  sheer dishonesty of charging extra for a guarantee it casually violated.  Walmart, big-box retail, presumably, can change that.  Aggregated mega- stores already exist and if they aren’t proliferating it’s attributable to an absence of expertise, which comes with the 51 percent ownership price tag. To cringe and feign sticker shock is disingenuous. If Walmart has know-how, so do we now, about how to win concessions, and impose the more stringent environmental, labour and sourcing policies that the company has been forced to adopt. As Walmart builds its India business, instead of miring the discussion in us vs. the US, we could ditch the jingoism and continue a conversation that began there.

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

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  • Lokesh

    Any critique of FDI in multi-brand retail, which fails to locate it within the larger process of capitalist expansion in an age of crisis of neo-liberalism, is doomed to be shallow. This particular piece by Aditi Saxton proves only one point that she knows sufficient English to formulate a simple argument in the most incoherent terms. Coming of Wal Mart to India is not as simple as coming of expertise and all that. And at last, simply because you feel grated by a conflation of globalisation and imperialism is definitely not a sufficient reason to wash away a reasoned analysis which is available in plenty, if you just cared to read.