The debate on FDI in the Parliament was of interest to me – not just because of its impact on the lives of the farmer, small traders and vendors, but also my life to a considerable extent. While the policy makers are happily glossing over the flip side of the whole issue, the affected people are worried. Don’t we know that all these giant chains are only concerned about keeping their godowns stocked at all times, no matter where the material comes from. If Indian farmers are not able to supply them or if they feel the produce is not up to their standards, they would summarily reject the produce and fly in stuff from where they find it cheap. So soon we would not only be using Chinese goods, but also be eating what they produce — frozen and preserved and flown in.
Already we have stopped getting ‘in season’ apples because they are all plucked and frozen at least six months before we get to eat them. And the price remains steady at around Rs.100 season or no season.
And has anyone noticed how our desi bhutta has been swallowed by the sweet corn, with its sickly sweet taste? I miss those bhuttas roasted on a little charcoal fire by the roadside and generously rubbed with lemon and black salt and with equal passion hate the cloying taste of the sweet corn dished out at ridiculously high prices with such flavours like Mexican chili and Chinese chat masala (whatever that means). And when these are roasted, they taste even worse.
Coming back to the mega store chains, how do they make their profits? Not by overpricing, but oversizing the packs. Already the neighbourhood grocers have standardized the packs of dals and other stuff to half, 1, 2, 5 kg packs. If you want anything less than that, you have to find an even smaller shop that sells stuff loose and measures out any quantity you specify. At home, we are just two people and if I include my maid, who has her breakfast in our house, we are two and half people. I don’t need those mammoth packets of grains and pulses or the 200ml tubes of toothpaste and 500ml shampoo bottles.
Also when you go to these mega stores, you find bargains and offers of many kinds – buy one and get 1/2/3 free, buy a 5 kg can of cooking oil and get a kilogram of sugar free and so on. They also have other lucrative offers of containers and bowls and glasses free. This is where the problem begins – each pack comes with one glass/bowl/container. If you want to have a nice set of those on your shelves, then you have to buy more than one pack. I am no saint who has overcome temptations and so when I find a beautiful glass free with a pack of instant coffee – 200 gms – I end up buying four of them to make a nice set. It is another story that I have to give away three and half packs to neighbours and the maid respectively, lest the coffee loses its flavour. I could have bought the glass for a fraction of the cost without the offer. But who can resist an offer, pray?
I envy all those who happily shop for their monthly groceries and other needs in a mega store or mall, finding all they want under one roof and resisting all the temptations while doing so. I can never resist temptation nor can I find all I want there.
So I prefer my neighbourhood shop – rather shops. I shop at two or three different places for my varied needs. Some of the things are only available at certain stores. For example, I need to get the tamarind from the south Indian store. What I get in a megastore might be too new, too sweet and have too many seeds. And I certainly don’t fancy eating Chinese tamarind, thank you! The coconut is shorn of its husk and given with the guarantee of exchange if it is rotten. I get the ‘mandai vellam’ (lumps of jaggery that resemble a head!) specially got from TN and a lot other things besides, including Tamil periodicals. I can pick up the phone and ask for the stuff and it comes home – no minimum amount of shopping that needs to be done to avail this service!
I also like going to the shop to pick out the stuff myself, as the shopkeeper helpfully suggests some new product or tells me that a particular product is not good and that he is going to return it to the supplier. He also knows the things I buy regularly and reminds me that I have forgotten to put til oil in the list or ask ‘Don’t you need Odomos? Mosquito season has started.’ He doesn’t have the rice I usually buy in stock, but promises to send it by evening and does too. He is not averse to keeping a running account, though I prefer paying off the bill every time I make a purchase. And then, I like to buy my coffee powder from the shop where the shopkeeper mixes the beans in the proportion I want and freshly roasts and grinds them for me. He is also nice enough to bring it to the road where we are waiting in the car, since the complex is too crowded to enter and park.
While my friendly kiranawala (grocer) delivers my requirement home, I have to lug the heavy stuff myself. If I don’t have a car parked in the basement, I have to push the cart to the auto stand and lift them up into it and then lift them out at home and carry them upstairs.
As for vegetables I like to buy them from the vendors lining the street after the morning walk. It feels good to be greeted by the vendor and offered the choicest of the greens as he puts in a sprig or two extra after the scale dips. I would rather eat the local produce that is fresh instead of the GM vegetables that has been frozen and flown half way across the world. How I wish I had a patch of kitchen garden to grow my own organic vegetables.
The long and short of it is that I don’t like shopping in malls or in hyper-stores – not for my groceries and veggies. Not even for my clothes and shoes. The glut of stuff lining the shelves is inviting and confusing at the same time. All designed to encourage spending with their ‘dil maange more’ and with weak willed people like me falling prey, lock, stock and barrel.
Well so much for those of us who can afford to buy from these mega stores and can write about choices. What about the poor who get their vegetables and fruits at half the market price? ‘Garib garib ki madad karta hai,’ (the poor help the poor) says my maid when I incredulously tell her the price I had bought the same vegetable from the vendor she has bought from. There is no way they would get any discount from the Walmarts and Tescos on the grounds of poverty, would they? For all one knows, they might even be stopped at the entrance due to their appearance.
In a country that has more than 40% of people in the BPL category, of what use are these mega sore…..oops, mega stores? Perhaps the small cash subsidy they are going to get will help them buy stuff from these international outlets, with all those bargains and offers thrown in? When political parties who are against FDI in retail still support it because they want to be on the side of the ‘secular’ party at the Centre. Who are they supporting? The government or the farmers of the country? I am frankly confused about the rationale behind all this. Can anyone please explain?
Image courtesy: http://in.finance.yahoo.com/