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Shun the hypocrisy; let lives improve

punjab Updated: Oct 01, 2012 11:14 IST
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There is a famous talisman by the Father of the Nation, wherein Bapu advises that during times of doubt, one should recall the face of the weakest and the most impoverished man one can think of, and then reflect that if the action one contemplates is going to be of any help to the man one envisioned. Gandhiji says that if you answer is in the affirmative, it means that your decision is correct.

I don't think that the 'leaders' who have been opposing the retail investment in Punjab, have done this check. Otherwise, they wouldn't be singing the cacophonous tunes that they are doing right now. They would have seen the image of the impoverished farmer in Punjab, a farmer who tends to his field, 4 acres or less in size, most likely mortgaged with a usurious moneylender, then harvests his modest crop without any help, keeps it in the open, vulnerable to elements, travels to the local mandi, waits there all night, and then gets exploited by the middlemen to earn a pittance so low that it is insufficient to provide any food for him and his family. That pittance, too, is most likely extracted out of him by the moneylender!

Unfortunately, this is the quintessential farmer in the state of Punjab where more than 75% of landholdings are less than 4 acres in size!

I am staggered at the hypocrisy of those who are staging dharnas against retail investment. These are the same people who talk in glowing terms about the betterment of the farmers. But when it comes to investment in retail, which shall eventually lead to better infrastructure (cold storages and transport), cropdiversification (by ensuring guaranteed returns to farmers), check the decline in soil quality (by reducing dependence on wheat and rice) and make farming more remunerative (by ensuring better returns to the farmer), they are opposing it tooth and nail.

Are they so tied up with their pseudo-political stands, that they are oblivious to the welfare of the people of the state? The BJP leaders, who are now crying hoarse about FDI in retail, were the same people who were pioneering its arrival. Wasn't it MrJaswant Singh, one of BJP's leading lights and the then finance minister, who had countered opposition to 100% retail FDI by mentioning, "Indian sherbet is there despite Coca Cola and Pepsi. Don't underestimate India!" So what has happened now? Has the sherbet suddenly turned unpalatable for the BJP?

The obvious sufferers, it is said, are the small shopkeepers and the workers employed by them. Take the latter first. Let us not pretend that the workers in kirana stores are working under any ideal circumstances. They are unorganised workforce -- often child labour! -- who are beyond the rules and stipulations, are rarely paid minimum wages, are not entitled to any social security net, and their job security is non-existent. The idea of governance is not perpetuation of their misery but to facilitate circumstances where they thrive, build their skills and look forward to a better future.

When I first went to a Walmart store in Amritsar, it was not the sheer size of the area that impressed me, but rather the way so many young Punjabis, all in their early 20s, were working in the store, neatly dressed in uniform, learning the intricacies of supply-chain and shop-floor management, taking home a decent pay packet, and all this while confident that their salaries and designations will look up as they gather more and more years of experience.
In fact, why even Walmart? Go to yourneighbouringEasyday or More and look at the youngsters working there. Isn't their condition far better than the impoverished underfed kids who work in kirana stores?

As regards kirana store owners, it is disingenuous to suggest that they will be out of business once Walmart comes in close proximity. Small shopowners havenimbleness and flexibilities, such as the ability to offer credit, home deliveries, late night service and differential pricing, which a big store like Walmart cannot have. So they always thrive. In fact, competition from big chains makes them more competitive.

International examples -- especially that of Brazil, a country much like India -- show that Walmart's arrival did not mean demise for local retailers. Walmart failed remarkably in Germany, where local retailers continue to do well. In fact, arrival of big retail would mean more cash-and-carry stores, which in turn would offer big business advantages to the small retailer.
InGidderbaha, the constituency I represented four times, every Sunday, the local small shop owners collectively charter a private bus and visit the cash-and-carry store in Bathinda, where they buy goods at rates much cheaper than what was being offered to them by the local wholesalers.

Finally, I fail to understand why some of our politicians are creating an impression as if big retail is coming to India for the first time. Six years ago, Punjab laid the red carpet for Reliance, which came out with its grand plans of a farm-to-fork project that, we were told, would save Punjab's farmer from disaster. The plan went nowhere, which clearly showed that the company was ill-equipped to perform its task. In reality, they made Punjab a guinea pig for their experiments.
On the contrary, big chains like Walmart and Carrefour have a proper system ofprocurement, cold storage and transport behind them.

Many years ago, Pepsi started procuring potatoes and tomatoes from farmers in Doaba region. Not only did it ensure handsome returns for the farmers, it also brought about improvement in their farming methodology, ushering in the much-needed crop diversification by ensuring consolidation of the deeply fragmented landholdings. Big retail has the potential of ushering in a similar revolution in all of Punjab. In addition, it can offer employment opportunities to our youngsters, skill enhancement to those in the unorganised sector, competitive prices to the consumers, improved quality of food produce to our kitchens, procurement from local cottage industry, and cheaper wholesale rates to our small retailers too.

In a nutshell, if initiated with proper checks, commitments to invest in the supply chain, and guarantees to procure from local suppliers, investment in retail will improve the lives of the weakest and the poorest.