Instead of selling more vegetables from his pushcart stationed in Vashi, Manoj Gupta often ends up getting into arguments with customers, some of whom have been buying from him for two decades.
Retail rap: Small traders protest against entry of retail giants into India, in Mumbai on Wednesday.
They often tell him, Gupta says, about how the same vegetables are available for 10-40% cheaper in the large chain stores that have opened in the area.
And it isn’t just talk. In the past year, he says, his income has come down to Rs10,000-15,000 from Rs25,000-30,000 a month. All around him, in the Vashi market, pushcarts have started dwindling, down to 30 from 35 just six months ago.
With sales falling, Gupta’s partner Rajendra Raskar says he went to check out the newly opened grocery stores. He came away convinced that the pushcart vegetables are better but the real culprits, in addition to low prices, are the lighting and the store’s air conditioning.
“Our vegetables are better but theirs look good under the bright lights and air conditioning,” he insists.
On Wednesday, Gupta and Raskar set aside their livelihoods and, instead, sat under a banner that sought help from Mumbai’s busy citizens for all pushcart vendors. They were joined in Azad Maidan by hundreds of other traders, employees who work at produce markets and politicians, in what was the latest in a series of protests across several cities against organized retail.
Between 6,000 and 7,000 people attended, according to an estimate by Isak Bagwan, assistant commissioner of Mumbai police. The Vyapaar Rozgar Suraksha Kriti Samiti, which represents about 750 unions and small business associations and which organized the protest, had on Tuesday forecast as many as 100,000 people would attend the rally.
India has an estimated 12 million small retailers that make up most of the country’s current retail sector. But with large firms such as the Aditya Birla Group, Reliance Industries Ltd and Bharti group, which also owns Bharti Airtel Ltd, joining the likes of Pantaloons and Subhiksha stores, activists of all hues and political affiliations are starting to mount increasingly strident protests.
With pushcart vendors claiming that sales are diminishing, some wholesalers, who supply to such vendors, also claim they have seen revenues fall by as much as 50%. Mumbai’s wholesale market shut down on Wednesday in support of the overall protests. Many of the new chains are trying to buy directly from farmers.
“By asking retailers to close down, you are denying consumers the right to get the right products at the right price,” says Gibson Vedmani, chief executive of the Retailers Association of India, a retail industry body that lobbies for large enterprises. “This is an unfound fear. I don’t see any issue in large and small retailers coexisting.”
And showing that more and more companies are jumping on the bandwagon despite the protests, the Mahindra group, which owns the country’s biggest tractor and sports-utility vehicle maker, said on Wednesday that it too plans to enter the retail business.
At Wednesday’s rally, those protesting asked for the Model APMC Act, which allows retailers to procure directly from farmers, to be scrapped. They specifically wanted licences for Wal-Mart, Metro Cash and Carry and Shoprite to be cancelled and a national policy to be created to protect hawkers and smaller retailers. The first two are global companies that are not allowed to open retail stores in India but are allowed to sell at stores that will sell to smaller stores and institutional buyers. Wal-Mart’s entry remains on the drawing boards while Metro has some stores in operation.
Foreign brands such as Wal-Mart have become the lightning rods for protesters even though much of the claimed decline in pushcart sales is likely stemming from stores set up by Indian business conglomerates such as Reliance, which is owned by Mumbai-based billionaire Mukesh Ambani.
Indeed, industrialists such as Ambani should set up large factories and achieve international presence rather than wanting to sell lemons and radishes, says Banwarilal Kanchal, a Samajwadi Party member of Parliament, who has led violent protests against Reliance Retail’s newly opened stores in Lucknow. Kanchal was the marquee speaker at the Wednesday rally as some give him credit for the Uttar Pradesh government asking Reliance to shut its stores in the state because of law and order reasons.
Saikat Chatterjee and Hemal Savai of Bloomberg contributed to this story.