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From Local To Global
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The BJP, which spearheaded the campaign, had itself proposed FDI in retail in its 2004 election manifesto. The Congress's coalition partners find it politically convenient to denounce foreign investment as a threat to the livelihood of small traders. In order to limit the impact of big-box stores on 20-30 million small traders, the government limited their operations to cities with a population of more than one million, of which there are just 53 in a country with 600,000 villages. To mollify coalition partners, New Delhi said state governments were free to refuse such investment.
Addressing concerns about the country being flooded by cheap Chinese goods, the government had mandated retailers to procure at least 30 per cent of manufactured or processed products from small domestic industries. All this ring-fencing seems not to have had any impact on opponents who raise the spectre of massive job losses under foreign bulldozers.
Not surprisingly, small traders' organisations and especially the middlemen who have been the principal beneficiaries of the inefficient retail trade were loud in opposition. While the middlemen mark up rates for urban consumers, paying low prices to farmers, some 40 per cent of fresh vegetables and fruits are wasted due to the lack of proper cold storage and transport facilities. In the most-detailed study on the impact of foreign investment in retail trade in 2008, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier), found that FDI would produce "a positive sum game" allowing small and large retail to not only coexist but also grow substantially in size. It concluded that the growth of organised retail will have "a positive multiplier effect on the Indian economy", in particular investment in IT industries, cold chain infrastructure, and logistics to strengthen the supply chain, while improving farmers' income. As per the government guidelines, foreign investors would be required to invest up to 50 per cent in back-end infrastructure.
Curiously, China which is often the yardstick of comparison has not been invoked in the debate over FDI. For the past two decades, China has modernised its agriculture and emerged as the world's fourth largest fresh vegetable exporter by bringing in foreign investment in retail creating what a World Bank economist calls the "Super market Olympics". Walmart introduced its signature automatic inventory replenishment technique to supply its 200 megastores in China, in the process, connecting its remote provinces to the global supply chain. Seventy per cent of Walmart's global merchandise now comes from China, where it employs over 80,000 people and several millions work for its 20,000 suppliers.
Of course, introducing foreign investment in retail is not a magic wand to remove rural poverty. If Walmart is allowed into retail, Indian suppliers — whether farmers or manufacturers — will have to deal with Walmart's cut-throat pricing policy. As presented in the new book Walmart In China, the company achieves its motto of ‘everyday low prices' by driving down procurement prices in exchange for huge orders. The book quotes Hua, a garment supplier, saying, "It's hard to make money from Walmart. Because of its size, a Walmart order can help factories keep running, but it cannot make them rich."
Indian companies awaiting large orders from the giant should be prepared for strict requirements of production deadlines, quality and compliance with its codes of corporate social responsibility. This would anyway have been the entry cost of modernising agricultural and industrial production and retail trade. But for now, the reform is on hold and India's population continues to grow by 19 million a year — mostly in rural areas.
The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-12-2011)