Mumbai/ New Delhi: Shaktiman Ghosh, 55, is overseeing his colleagues from the hawkers’ association dust off old banners used for a November protest and spread them on the roof of their office in Kolkata’s university neighbourhood. As leader of the pack, he doesn’t want any last-minute glitches.
In Bangalore, several hundred kilometres away, small traders have invited veterans of India’s independence movement against the British to be part of the unorganized sector’s protests against modern retailers in an effort to figure out how best to get their protests to work.
Leading the charge: A September picture of anti-retail protests in Shakarpur, east Delhi. Banwari Lal Kanchal (with lock) had led the protests against Reliance Fresh. (Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/ Mint)
Small traders, farmers, anti-modern retail activists from Allahabad to Hyderabad are gearing up for what is being touted as the country’s first nationwide protest on Saturday against local and foreign big retailers.
The traders and hawkers, who first jolted organized retail’s rapid growth by picketing store fronts, pelting stones and downing shutters in sporadic episodes in various states, now have a national coordination committee to help them bring all protests, dubbed Halla Bol (Hindi for “make lots of noise”) to raise the pitch on a single day, the same day in an effort to grab maximum attention.
And associations of chemists, hawkers, footpath vendors and traders, whose businesses have been eroded by the coming of modern retail, are slowly coming together to form a broad coalition that is more strident, organized and coordinated nationally.
This may be the first sign that coordinated anti-retail protests are here to stay.
On the other side of the fence are several deep-pocketed Indian modern retailers and the world’s largest retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., that are slated to increase their current 3% market share of India’s $300 billion, or Rs12 trillion, (by sales) market manifold in the coming years. And that’s something the unorganized groups fear—that modern retailers will displace millions of small traders.
In August, the coalition launched a campaign called “Quit Retail”, to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the “Quit India’’ movement in the country by freedom fighters against their British rulers. The so-called Quit Retail movement hopes to gather the same momentum to shoo away big retailers.
“We have a national programme,” says Mohan Gurnani, who heads a traders’ association called Federation of Associations of Maharashtra. “It is not like we do a rasta roko (block a road) or some other disjointed protest anymore. Instead we coordinate and do it on one day.”
Planning for Saturday’s nationwide protests started as much as three months ago when the coordination committee met in New Delhi. The organizations involved say that little funds are involved in organizing their protests and that the individual associations contribute what is required.
For instance, the Sugar Association, which is made up of wholesale sugar traders, used to put away around 25 paise for each 100kg bag of the commodity sold and collect about Rs4-5 lakh a year. This money was typically used to run a sanatorium, or other charitable causes.
But now, some of it could also go into organizing these protests. The Sugar Association and others had made some banners for a protest in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan last year. For the Halla Bol protest, the chemists’ association will offer tea and water to the protesters in Mumbai.
Kolkata’s hawkers will fund their protest through membership fees and donations, set up podiums at two different places in the city and hold two rallies at different times. The hawkers’ union will spend about Rs8,000 on the podiums and the public address systems among other things, says leader Ghosh, adding that the city’s municipality will station tankers with drinking water at the venues.
Ghosh and his organization have been holding meetings in the city’s different localities for the last two weeks and had also organized a workshop to “create awareness” among various politicians about the impact of modern retailers on the unorganized sectors.
“This kind of programme has become regular for us,” Ghosh says. “Fighting the (entry of) corporate retail has currently become the agenda No. 1 for us.”
On 23 February, protesters will drive around Navi Mumbai’s modern retail stores on their motorbikes and cars, and halt to demonstrate outside each store for a while. In Bangalore too, the protesters will walk around in a procession to several stores and demonstrate outside them.
In all, the Halla Bol protest is likely to be held in more than a dozen different places and the biggest will likely be in Kerala’s Thrissur district. Kerala, ruled by a communist government, has already asked organized retailers to move out.
Traditionally, anti-retail rallies have been austere, with no chairs, or snacks and participating organizations sponsoring posters, banners and the larger organizations contributing for the tents and sound systems.
At Bangalore’s Halla Bol rally, a vendors’ association will foot the bill for banners, which could cost around Rs300, and a traders’ association will sponsor several handbills, which could cost around Rs400, says Babu Khan, the Bangalore coordinator for India FDI Watch, or foreign direct investment watch, a not-for-profit group against big retail.
As the presence of big retail has grown, so has the coalition of those hurt by it.
Khan says that several new organizations of hawkers, traders and vendors are getting formed around Bangalore and its outskirts. “It has been a two-year process to build these networks of NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” he says.
For instance, activists Khan and K.C. Venkatesh along with trader Abdul Hameed have collected traders and hawkers from Yeshwantpur and Malleswaram, once trading hubs within the city, to protest against big retail.
The Association of Small Traders and Retailers (ASTRA, which means weapon in Hindi) was formed just three months ago, but its members have already contributed for a national seminar on retail and will participate in the Halla Bol protest.
“Incomes of small hawkers in our area have come down to Rs100 a day from Rs300 a day since Reliance has opened here, and traders’ incomes have also fallen similarly since Metro Cash and Carry opened,” says Venkatesh, ASTRA’s secretary.
The Bharatiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal, a national association of traders, often helps organize the protests in several states. “It is really not a problem for us because we have branches everywhere, including West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. So they can rally people together as when required,” says Shyam Bihari Mishra, president of the Bharatiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal.
Buoyed by the success of their collective action, the protesters now plan to get together more often and will organize a national rally of traders in the Capital in April. All of this will mean more steering committee meetings and more pre-planning.
But as the movement gets bigger, older protesters also miss their fire and brimstone ways. “This is not like what we did in Lucknow and Delhi. I personally got hit by lathis (sticks) and so many of the protesters got injured,” says Banwari Lal Kanchal, president of the Rashtriya Vyapar Mandal. “Now traders are not as passionate,” says Kanchal, a Samajwadi Party member of Parliament, who had led violent protests in Uttar Pradesh the day Reliance Fresh stores opened there. The state government had ordered the stores shut and Kanchal now feels that was the biggest success of the movement.
In the Capital, a couple of hundred small traders will hold a protest in Shakarpur in east Delhi, where Reliance Fresh, Subhiksha and Aditya Birla Group’s More supermarkets are located close to each other.
In Kerala, the country’s only state with 100% literacy, even the first draft legislation curbing the growth of big retail has been prepared. Protests there are likely to be large, but peaceful and will include a candle-light vigil and pledge taking—adding newfangled touches to take on modern retail.