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FEBRUARY 1, 2012 10:50PM

Mr. Shyam, the Subzi-Wala

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When I was about five years old, I visited my grandmother in the Southern Indian town of Vellore. Apart from the traditional-style house with a large open courtyard in the center and sneaking pickled lemons from the big earthen jar in the store room, my other abiding memory is that each morning a man brought around a mother cow and calf to the front door. He would call out to my grandmother with the common greeting, “Mother, I’m here. How much today?” She would amble to the door with a stainless steel container and let him know how many cups of milks she wanted, adding a bit extra because I was visiting. He would milk the mother cow on the spot, and, together with a bit of the day’s local news, give my grandmother her requested amount. Then he would slowly walk cow and calf down the street to his next customer’s house.

Today, in the huge metropolis of Delhi, my milk comes from the nation-wide Mother Dairy milk cooperative, from one of its many retail outlets throughout the city, in plastic bags of ½ litre each and in four varieties – full cream, toned, double-toned, and skim. Not as charming, but effective.

But I still get my vegetables from a small open-air street-side vendor, or what industry analysts call ‘the unorganized sector’.  The stand consists of a large table covered with vegetables, a small table with a scale, and a canopy covering both. Shyam Vegetables – as the receipt says – is run by a man with the age and gravitas to be the owner or at least the manager of this enterprise. He nods to me in acknowledgement and hands me a small plastic basket to put in my choices. He has a couple of young helpers, including one man who is mute. Whenever I see him, he always inquires (by signing) after my leg, which I broke about four years ago and always seems happy to see that I’ve fully recovered. As I rummage through the vegetables on the table, he sometimes crawls below the table and pulls out fresh stock to offer me. When I take my basket to the scale, the owner asks me if I need anything else and reminds me that the broccoli and lettuce have just arrived. After he weighs my vegetables, writes each item on a bill, and puts them into my bag, he will throw in a small bunch of cilantro and a hand full of green chilies, gratis.

Mr. Shyam’s stall is located in an affluent area of Delhi. He carries mostly local vegetables but also some exotic ones. His clients include both Indians and foreigners. Sometimes I hear a customer, usually Indian and well-heeled, haggle over the price of a product; it’s not for nothing that famed economist Amartya Sen called his recent book ‘The Argumentative Indian’. But given that the client has just stepped out of the latest model SUV, I’m inclined to think she is doing it more out of habit, feels it’s expected of her, or wants to show she’s no pushover, rather than because she can’t afford that kilo of onions. Mr. Shyam though keeps his cool, shrugs his shoulders, and shares his own philosophy of life: “everything is becoming more expensive”. I somehow trust the man. Once when I didn’t have enough money on me, he handed me my vegetables, and told me, “Just pay me next time”.

There was recently a proposal before the Indian government to let in foreign supermarkets like Walmart and Tesco. Supporters (including the foreign supermarkets and foreign media) say this is the obvious thing to do: it will modernize and improve India’s entire retailing system, make the supply chain more efficient and reduce wastage, and even curb food prices. They refer to it in optimistic terms such as retail liberalization and retail reform – which are always good things, right? Critics (mostly Indian) say it will destroy small shopkeepers. In India, the retail sector is the second largest source of employment (after agriculture) and 97% of the business is done by unorganized retailers such as Mr. Shyam.

The issue became highly politicized, unions threatened strikes, several states refused to go along, and the government ultimately backed down. But this is not the last we will hear of it; India is too big a market for multinationals to take no for an answer, particularly as other markets are becoming saturated.

If not multinationals, there are already chains of large national groceries stores in India, such as Spencer’s (owned by the RPG Group) and Big Bazaar (owned by Future Group), and regional stores such as Delhi’s Le Marché. Perhaps because I expect them to be like a Safeway’s in the US, a Loblaw’s in Canada, or a Carrefour in Europe, I find shopping at the Indian retail food chains less than satisfactory. In one, the vegetables look old and check-out is very slow because cashiers seem untrained. Another has amazingly high security. I had to argue with them to let my father bring in his knapsack with his medications and nitroglycerin. They also went through a stage of sealing handbags in plastic. Once I discovered I had left my shopping list in my handbag but since it was now sealed, I could not access it and was left to wander around aimlessly, wondering what I came in for. A third is located on three floors, has one small elevator that is often out of order, and has exorbitantly priced vegetables.

My experience with supermarkets in North American and Europe is that you heap up stuff in a huge cart and, after paying for it, wheel it out to your car that’s parked just outside in the parking lot. Here, it’s likely that there won’t be parking near the store and you can’t roll the cart to your car because the way is too bumpy and there may also be stairs to navigate. With street-side vegetable stalls, you can either walk there because there’s sure to be one in your neighbourhood or you can just park at the curb. Some people even conduct their business sitting inside their car and pointing to the vegetables they want. There are also vendors who will take orders over their mobile phones and then have the vegetables delivered home. And apart from stationary street vendors, there are the mobile ones who roll their carts through the streets and stop at your doorstep.

I realize that the way of the future may well be big retail chains, multinational or otherwise. I do get it: progress, efficiency, onwards and upwards, time waits for no shopper, and all that stuff. But even if the entry of MNCs into food retail is inevitable, is it right? In management theory, there are two perspectives: the universal perspective says that there is one right answer, whatever the context; the contingency perspective says the right answer depends on the situation. While huge multinational retail food outlets may be right for the Western world, given India’s situation here and now, is it right for us? In India’s wild and woolly working environment, it may not be right for the foreign supermarkets either: their success is not guaranteed.

While the government has backed off on this topic for now, it’s sure to come up again and next time the forces to pass such a proposal may win. The results may not be as catastrophic as the critics envision. India has always been able to absorb the threats and influences of a myriad of cultures and they have gone on to survive side by side. Multinational fast food outlets like McDonald’s and KFC have not ousted the corner samosa-walas because each have their time and place and clientele. Similarly, there may be space for both the Carrefours and the vegetable carts.

But as and when these behemoths roll in, I do fear for my nice subzi-wala, and myself. If Mr. Shyam is put out of business, I shall miss that personal touch, that free helping of cilantro and green chilies, and that mute young man who always greets me with a smile and still remembers my broken leg.

(A shorter version of this article was originally published in the International Herald Tribune.)



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Thank you for sharing your wonderful writing! Good for India for keeping multinationals like Walmart at bay. It seems that while here in the US people are trying so hard to nurture farmer's markets and revitalize smaller, local farming enterprises, India already has this huge, diverse fresh food supply in place...long live the subzi-wallas!
Dear Clay Ball,

As always, thanks for your kind and encouraging comments.

The Indian veggies are much more spotty than their American brethren, but somehow seem to taste better. You get brocoli and strawberries all year round, and we get them only seasonally. Lots of trade-offs to be made on this issue, but we need to make them with our eyes open and learn from others.
Excellent writing, both the topic and the great descriptive details. I would like to go to India some day.

In the US, we have the big, massive, efficient markets. But I still love my local fruit and vegetable stand that sells local seasonal vegetables from local farmers, and sells Oregon strawberries in season. Oregon strawberries are the definition of what's wrong with modern agriculture. They are juicy and sweet (they're soft), they don't ship well, and they only last a few days after picking. You can't find them anywhere but here, because they grow here. So the Safeways and big supermarkets don't carry them. We get them at roadside stands and farmer's markets, and eat them for a month or so, until they're gone. Then we wait for next year.

I would say, keep your local shops as long as you can.
Hello Froggy. Thank you for your thoughts.

When we gets things seasonally, I feel we value it more and it seems to mark the passage of time as well. Enjoy your strawberries.