Malls, multiplexes and multitudes

CK Lal is a writer and columnist based in Kathmandu.

Four-wheelers whiz past
To collect and convert
Every drop of sweat
Into cash and profit.

– Ramesh Dutt Dubey in Teji aur paisa

Words change their meanings over time. Malls once meant shaded avenues open to the public where one could go for a stroll, window shop or merely watch the world go by. Now it refers to multi-storeyed shopping plazas where hawk-eyed security guards shoo away the poor. Often from the lower classes themselves, these sentries of the rich are trained to believe that the masses throng to megaplexes merely to escape the heat of the street, have a free ride on the escalator or use the lavatory. In Hindi movies, innocent-looking visitors are shown being thrown out of the premises for naively trying a cologne spray from the racks. The implicit message of such scenes: The underclass should keep out of facilities built for their social superiors.

Multiplex, meanwhile, used to be an adjective to denote complexity, and a verb to describe certain ways of communicating. Now a noun, it indicates a movie theatre with different auditoriums in the same building, sharing a common toilet but having multiple eateries to suit different tastes and pockets. The meaning of the term multitudes, however, has remained constant: they are the common people, the masses that vastly outnumber the comfortable classes in developing societies.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh believes that his job is to placate the social elite and protect the interest of domestic and foreign investors. Mother Sonia and ruler-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi are enough to assuage the rising expectations of the great unwashed of Mother India with their polemics. In a move to further 'liberalise' the Indian economy, the United Progressive Alliance (it is difficult to see what is progressive about the agenda of the Congress-led UPA government, though) is on the verge of allowing unlimited foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail trade.

The Indian national media has been complicit with its conspiracy of silence. When they have not supported the move towards retail FDI, they have maintained a sphinx-like impassivity on the issue. Hawkers and small-scale shopkeepers seldom advertise, and the entry of multinationals into retailing promises to be profitable for the media moguls. The Southasian media has learned to recognise where its interests lie, though the nascent civil society is yet to realise what the death of street vendors portends. It would erode the civil society's enduring support base among people who operate outside the government and are relatively independent of the market forces despite being a part of it.

The other countries of Southasia often take their cue from whatever policy decisions on economic liberalisation are made in India. Once New Delhi chooses to take the plunge, Kabir Dada's shop across the road in Dhaka, Rahim Chacha's convenience store on a street corner of Karachi and Kalu Mama ko Kirana Pasal in a back alley of Kathmandu will all meet the same fate as that of Guptaji ki Dukan in Agartala, Agra and Ahmedabad or Venkat General Stores in Tirupati, Tiruchirappalli or Thiruvananthapuram. Family-run stores will become extinct in the face of aggressive competition from Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco among a host of multinationals eyeing the growing retail market of the Subcontinent.

One of the Indian pink papers gushed that the Prime Minister's Office has already given an in-principle nod for allowing FDI, and termed the move 'a game changer in Indian retailing space'. Such a drastic change, however, would affect Southasia's economy and society in unexpected ways: the intimate relationship between consumers and shopkeepers will be eroded, accumulation of trading power in few hands will create resentment, and jobs for the less-skilled in vending will be reduced. The polity might also face the unintended consequences of a revolutionary transformation in commerce, as the disempowered trading community – the force of stabilisation in Southasian societies – will be radicalised.

In all this, the problem with statistics has always been that they could be manipulated to prove contradictory arguments. India is said to have at least 11 million small shops (excluding street vendors and hawkers) that employ over 33 million people. After agriculture, retail trade is the second-largest employment sector. For promoters of liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation, this represents gross inefficiency. A much smaller workforce can handle the same volume of trade through the management techniques, mechanisation and streamlining of transactions that multinational chains would introduce. Presumably, small shopkeepers will then be free to dispose their merchandise and become migrant workers on construction sites in the Gulf, just as displaced farmers have been doing for quite a few years.

Multinationals also tend to change the way that shopping for essentials is done in Southasia. It will no longer be possible to put the pan on the stove and rush out to buy a small quantity of cooking oil, an onion or a few tomatoes from the shop down the street. For a small vendor, trust is everything and the customer is king. Sales assistants at convenience-store chains or huge department stores, however, depend upon rules, procedures and guidelines of operation. A customer cannot tell the cashier at a supermarket that she will pay him for the bread or spices on the way back from office, the way you can with the street vendor.

Family-run general stores have been a part of the Southasian landscape for millennia. Even though the baniya (trader) became a pejorative term during the Mughal period, when a warlike disposition was given pride of place, it still ranked as the second most honourable occupation after agriculture. Variations of the Maithili saying Uttam kheti, madhyam baan; nikrishtha chakari, bheekh nidan (Agriculture is best, trading medium, the despicable occupation is to slave for others, and begging is forbidden) can be found in almost all Southasian languages, due to its Sanskrit roots. Retail chains, set to invade Southasia, would turn many potential small-scale entrepreneurs into robot-like employees at superstores, where they would be trained to smile impersonally and serve with detachment.

Any job is better than having nothing to do, but employment is a poor substitute for work. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, but the dignity of self-employment in small-scale businesses, street vending and retail trade is not really understood by the enthusiastic editors at the pink papers. Retail chains and superstores are implants in a society that already has an indigenous system of trade, which has been functioning efficiently for centuries.

Ironically, imposition of a higher form of capitalism – large-scale operations – upon societies with lower levels of modernisation will undermine the very cause it intends to promote, and strengthen the case for collectivism. Conveyor-belt technologies in heavily populated regions frighten away the masses that look for opportunities rather than conveniences – even if prices were competitive, a farmer would rather sell to the local dealer than executives of multinational chains. Approximately one in every 25 Indians might have a cell phone, but credit cards are still a rarity, and it will take a while before the stigma attached to borrowing evaporates.

The Indian government says that the entry of multinationals into the retail trade will help to eliminate the intermediaries and middlemen. They also say that it will help to reduce costs to consumers, infuse cash into the creation of storing facilities for perishable goods, and ensure better return for farmers. Indeed, they are worthy goals; but these causes would probably be better served with the strengthening of 'khadi stores' (the government has begun to phase them out) and Sasta Bazaar cooperatives. Hypermarkets for car owners and convenience stores on street corners for the middle classes constitute an idea that upwardly mobile Southasians find hard to resist. The carbon footprint per footfall of such outlets should also be a matter of concern. In the early 1980s, department stores in Singapore had the generic name of being 'cold stores', because their climate control worked so efficiently. Southasia will have to think about the number of energy-intensive Singapore-like enclaves it would be able to maintain without inviting a backlash of the multitudes.

Political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have tried to conceptualise 'multitude' as a new model of resistance against the global capitalist system. The deafening silence of the Southasian activists over this important issue of political economy shows that an uprising of the masses is still the only way of encountering oppression and exploitation, not the network of the informed that Hardt and Negri believe are the new multitudes. Some meanings remain the same despite changes all around.

~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine, Republica and the Nepali Times.

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