New Delhi: Wal-Mart’s entry into India is still a few weeks away, at least, but protesters who have cut their teeth working against the company in the US are already in India.
The most celebrated among them is Wade Rathke, a US-based activist who said he travels the world to caution people on the adverse impact Wal-Mart has on local communities and small businesses. Then, there is Reena Desai, a 25-year-old US citizen of Indian origin who came to India and joined India FDI Watch only to fight Wal-Mart.
“Wal-Mart was the main goal and mission for me to come back” to India, she said. India FDI Watch is supported by Rathke’s Association of Community Organizations for Reforms Now, or ACORN, and its activists were behind a protest targeted at Michael Duke, Wal-Mart’s deputy chairman who visited India earlier this year. He was met by activists waving black flags who said they wanted the company to “go back”.
Foreign companies are entering India attracted by rising salaries and an economy that grew 9.2% in 2006-07, according to an estimate by the Indian government. Rathke’s interest in India could well indicate that the opponents of these companies (usually environmental and other activist groups) may also be eyeing the country.
Anti-globalization campaigns aren’t new to India. Organizations such as Greenpeace International have lent their support to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, involving Union Carbide, in 1984.
Wal-Mart is looking at countries such as China and India for growth. India provides huge potential for modern retailers. Currently just 3% of the country’s $300 billion annual market is accounted for by organized retail. A report released last week by the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an industry lobby, said the country’s retail market is expected to grow to $427 billion, with the share of organized retail increasing to 22% of this by 2010.
“We believe that India, with the dramatic growth of its middle class and policies that this government is putting in place, offers and excellent opportunity for our kind of retail,” Wal-Mart’s chief executive Lee Scott had told an investors’ conference in 2005. However, in the same breath, he added a note of caution. “It has to be done the right way. There are a lot of concerns about how a company would do that, how quickly they might grow.”
Some of those concerns were aired publicly this year when the chairperson of the Congress party-led ruling alliance, Sonia Gandhi, alluded to Wal-Mart’s imminent entry into India and its fallout on small retailers and farmers in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“She seems to be increasingly aware of the sensitivity of the issue,” said Rathke. “We are really encouraged by it.”
Rathke said he comes to India every six months. In his latest visit to India last week, he toured Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi, meeting lawmakers, small retailers, trade unions and many others. In New Delhi, India FDI Watch organized a day-long convention assembling farmers, small retailers, trade unions, social activists, and even the city’s trash collectors who pledged to start a nationwide campaign against Wal-Mart and other homegrown modern retailers.
Rathke said that when he visited India for the first time a year-and-half ago nobody seemed to know Wal-Mart. “Now, everybody seems to know the company,” he said. “Wal-Mart is already finding brand recognition.”
Rathke said a lawmaker had approached him for copies of anti-predatory pricing laws in the US.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has decided to “build bridge” with the media in the coming weeks to put its side of the story across. Raj Jain, Wal-Mart’s president for emerging markets, presented some of the company’s points in an email he sent last week to several newspapers, including Mint and other media vehicles.