Let grass roots decide on Walmart

Garga Chatterjee | THE HINDU

If we are going to buy American, why not adopt the American way of giving local bodies the right to refuse entry to super stores in their area.

There is the United States of America and then there is the ‘idea’ of USA that exists in the minds of significant portions of the middle classes all across the globe. How this looks in real life varies slightly according to the region of the world, reflecting specific aspirations and anxieties. In the subcontinent, the latter idea is increasingly not made in a Hollywood basement, given the ‘IT-coolie’-fired traffic to the U.S. One important element of the newer idea of USA that flows back daily by television, Skype, photographs, phone conversation and emails is the ease of the consumer experience in multi-brand retail stores as big as football stadia, with the variety of wares on offer seemingly endless — from bananas to bikinis and beyond. Walmart is unquestionably the most prominent of these chain-stores, a super-brand. Viewed in another way, it is a ‘shop’ whose name is more famous than the brand names of the things it sells.

The shopping experience

I have been living in the U.S. for the last few years, more or less in east coast cities. The last six have been in the Boston area. Many separate municipal towns constitute much of the Boston area. My location however deprives me of the quintessentially ‘American’ experience of shopping at Walmart. I live in Cambridge and hence I am at least 10 miles away from the two Walmarts in the vicinity. Given that I use public transport and my bicycle to move around, both these locations are quite inaccessible for me. Walmarts and stores like that cannot exist in the U.S. in the absence of the stupendous subsidy to the highway systems that make the stores viable, not to mention the mass culture of individual car ownership that makes such stores reachable. If one were to look at a map of Walmart locations across the U.S., it corresponds very well with a population density map of the nation. That said, the absence of Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.

It is not that Walmart did not want to set up a store in my vicinity. In fact, it tried and tried hard. When I was a student, as a part of my on-campus job as a server and bartender for the Harvard University Dining Services, I would be deputed to various addresses around the area to serve at parties, clean dirty dishes and do similar chores. One such assignment was in the neighbouring municipal area of Watertown. When I was going into the house, I saw a sign on the lawn that said “No Walmart — No more big boxes.” ‘Big box’ incidentally is the nickname for Walmart and other such stores, for that is what they look like. Given that I knew there weren’t any such stores in the area, I wondered what this was about. After my working hours, I talked to the house-owner and he told me he was part of the burgeoning local citizens’ movement, ‘Sustainable Watertown,’ which was opposing a proposed Walmart ‘big-box’ store near the central square of Watertown. In the U.S., citizens of towns and villages have a say in what happens to their areas, and elected officials can veto proposals — be they of setting up stores, building highways or railways. He informed me that they had been getting a lot of support, which had translated into some elected city councillors getting pressured not to court Walmart.

Fast-forward a few years. In November 2011, the incumbent vice-president of the City Council came very close to being defeated by a candidate fighting almost solely on the agenda of stopping Walmart from gaining a foothold in Watertown. In June 2012, Walmart announced it was shelving plans to set up shop in Watertown. At the same time, it also suspended plans to build in a store in the neighbouring town of Somerville.

The Walmart spokesperson said, “In the case of the Somerville and Watertown sites, we made a business decision that the projected cost of investment would ultimately exceed our expected return.” There was another thing common to these two towns — both had popular citizens’ initiatives opposing the entry of Walmart in their areas. In response to this, Barbara Ruskin of Sustainable Watertown issued a statement that read “We, the members of Sustainable Watertown, applaud the news of our campaign’s success and pledge to continue to work with town residents and members, supporting neighbourhood groups, taking an early role in planning and development projects, and providing venues for discussions of sustainability. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the town for a positive vision of a healthy, just and prosperous community.”

Gaps in the network

This is not a long-winded argument against Walmart or other large multi-brand retail chain stores and their pros and cons vis-à-vis the local community. This simply is a reminder that there are gaps in the network of stores Walmart wants to establish. Those gaps are populated by real people, who, like most of us, are consumers who love low prices. But at the same time, many of them feel that they would have to pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite the ‘low price’ bait. These gaps, in the shadow of the glorious network of Walmart, when joined together by an alternative perspective of what really matters, also form a United States. It extends beyond Watertown and Somerville and beyond the faux anti-corporate sensibilities of affluent white hipsters. Among the cities, towns and villages all across the nation which have put a low upper limit to the maximum area that can be covered by a ‘shop’, one can count Ashland (Oregon), Oakley (California), Madison (Wisconsin), Ravalli County (Montana), Sante Fe (New Mexico), San Diego (California) and many more. Join the dots and the contours of a nation emerge. This is a USA of Walmart-gaps that few hear about, but it exists nonetheless.

The UPA government has cleared foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. This adds diversity and capital-power to the already existing scene of Indian multi-brand retail giants. In a rare and cunning gesture to State rights, it has added an enabling rider so that individual States can choose to not permit the entry of foreign multi-brand retail entities in their respective areas. The Centre has made a lot out of this enabling clause, and has waxed eloquent about its commitment to State’s rights as well as democratic principles. It has also driven home the opposite point that the refusal of a certain province should not hold up the power of other areas to host Walmarts. This is quite reasonable, in my opinion. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the Centre is indeed sensitive to the differing aspirations and ‘development’ trajectories of different regions, why does it not have such clauses across the board, in all aspects of trade and commerce and beyond that, in much of what are called the ‘Central’ and ‘Concurrent’ lists?

The Indian Union never tires to tout its successes in the devolution of power by the Panchayati Raj system. In fact, taking the logic of devolution to its logical end, why does it not allow the lower units of the local government to veto decisions and policies that the local body thinks are inimical to the interests of the area? By feverishly canvassing for the rights of the individual as a consumer, this apparently libertarian rhetoric is exposed when the Centre devolves powers to local bodies without giving them veto powers over most decisions that govern life on the ground, including the right to refuse certain kinds of entities to set up shop in an area. As long as the fundamental rights of the individual citizen are not compromised, what does the Centre fear? If the gram panchayats could decide the fate of what comes up in their areas, future Nandigrams could be avoided. They might choose to have Walmarts. Or not. On being liberated from Lutyens’ notions of constitutionality, that is what democracy looks like.

(The writer is postdoctoral scholar in Brain and Cognitive Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)