India has buckled to outside pressure by allowing in the multinational retailer — the only beneficiary of this move

For U.S. President Barack Obama there could be nothing more cheering. The ‘underachiever’ now goes to the presidential polls with a lot of confidence — India’s decision to open up FDI in multi-brand retail comes as a shot in the arm for the beleaguered American economy and will obviously boost his poll prospects.

Mr. Obama certainly knows what is good for the U.S. economy; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also knows what is in America’s interest. Mr. Obama, for instance, wanted to stop outsourcing to protect U.S. jobs. No amount of persuasion from India changed his mind. Similarly, knowing how important FDI in retail is for him, he had pitched for a new wave of economic reforms. It was surprising to see Mr. Obama telling India what is good for us.

Aided and abetted by TIME magazine and credit rating agencies like Standard&Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s, India finally buckled under global pressure. What is little known is that India was also under a G-20 obligation to remove all hurdles to the growth of multi-brand retail.

But is FDI in retail really good for India? Will it improve rural infrastructure, reduce wastage of agricultural produce, and enable farmers to get a better price for their crops? While a lot has been said and written about the virtues of big retail, let me make an attempt to answer some of the big claims.

Agriculture: The Prime Minister has repeatedly projected FDI in retail as a boon for agriculture. Unfortunately, this is not true. Even in the U.S., big retail has not helped farmers — it is federal support that makes agriculture profitable. In its last Farm Bill in 2008, the U.S. made a provision of $307 billion for agriculture for the next five years. .

Where is the justification for such massive support if big retail was providing farmers better prices? And let us not forget, despite these subsidies studies have shown that one farmer in Europe quits agriculture every minute.

The second argument is that big retail will squeeze out middleman and therefore provide a better price to farmers. This is again not borne by facts. In the U.S., some studies have shown that the net income of farmers has come down from 70 per cent in the early 20th century to less than four per cent in 2005.

This is because big retail actually brings in a new battery of middlemen — quality controller, standardiser, certification agency, processor, packaging consultants etc. It is these middlemen who walk away with the profits and the farmer is left to survive on the subsidy dole.

Monopolistic power enables these companies to go in for predatory pricing. Empirical studies have shown that consumer prices in supermarkets in Latin America, Africa and Asia have remained higher than the open market by 20 to 30 per cent.

And finally, the argument that multi-brand retail will provide adequate scientific storage and thereby save millions of tonnes of food grains from rotting. I don’t know where in the world big retail has provided backend grain storage facilities?

FDI is already allowed in storage, and no investment has come in. Let it also be known that even the 30-per-cent local sourcing clause for single-brand retail has already been challenged and quietly put in cold storage by the Ministry of Commerce.

Employment: The Indian retail market is estimated to be around $400 billion with more than 12 million retailers employing 40 million people. Ironically, Wal-Mart’s turnover is also around $420 billion, but it employs only 2.1 million people. If Wal-Mart can achieve the same turnover with hardly a fraction of the workforce employed by the Indian retail sector, how do we expect big retail to create jobs? It is the Indian retail sector which is a much bigger employer, and big retail will only destroy millions of livelihoods.

State government’s prerogative: Very cleverly, the Central government has allowed the State governments the final say in allowing FDI in retail. This may to some extent pacify those State governments opposed to big retail. However, the industry is upbeat and knows well that as per international trade norms, member countries have to provide national treatment. Being a signatory to Bilateral Investment promotion and Protection Agreements (BIPAs), India has to provide national treatment to the investors. Agreements with more than 70 countries have already been signed. State governments will, therefore, have to open up for big retail. Industries will use the legal option to force the States to comply.

And more importantly, let us look at how the virus of big retail spreads, even if the promise is to keep it confined to major cities. Recently, a New York Times expose showed how Wal-Mart had captured nearly 50 per cent of Mexico’s retail market in 10 years. What is important here is that as per the NYT disclosure “the Mexican subsidiary of Wal-Mart, which opened 431 stores in 2011, had paid bribes and an internal enquiry into the matter has been suppressed at corporate headquarters in Arkansas”.

In India, we are aware that Wal-Mart alone had spent Rs.52 crore in two years to lobby, as per a disclosure statement made in the U.S. It has certainly paid off.

(Devinder Sharma is a noted food and agricultural policy analyst.)

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