India prepares for the supermarket revolution

By Andrew North
BBC News, Delhi


Family groceries are still the norm in India, but the government plans to allow international supermarkets to operate in the country, and a shopping revolution seems inevitable.

The first thing Devendra, the manager of my regular grocery store, does when he opens up each morning, is tend to two small statues of Guru on a shelf above the cash drawer.

He lights two tiny clay dishes full of ghee, placing them in front of the statues and then adjusts the flowers around them.

Then he reaches for a bottle, filled with holy water from the Ganges, and flicks it over the floor and shelves.

It is the one calm moment in his day. Already the pace around him is quickening.

The first customers are arriving, his assistants greeting every one, and then doing their shopping for them. You just stand back and say what you want.

When I finish, the assistant presents my basket to Devendra to work out the bill - who is now like a conductor, keeping four rhythms in his head at once.

With pen and notebook - no electronic cash registers here - he is totting up my bill while simultaneously taking another order by phone.

He turns to shout the cost of an imported Christmas cake to another assistant, and then starts on another customer's basket, even before he has finished mine.

It looks like a recipe for chaos, but it is cramped family-run shops like Devendra's that supply most people's groceries. And they are a cornerstone of Indian life. Devendra has been running his store for 30 years.

"I have watched our customers grow up," he says proudly.

But this Christmas Devendra is worried, because of a government decision to allow foreign supermarket chains like Tesco and America's Walmart to invest here.

Like millions of other small shopkeepers, Devendra fears the same fate as his counterparts in the UK or anywhere else where big supermarkets have taken root.

With no sign of India's economic downturn ending, the government is desperate for something to put the shine back into its international image.

Walmart and co may not be too popular elsewhere, but letting them set up shop here has become the centrepiece in the government's revival strategy.

Some see it as a curious approach, when tens of millions of Indian children still go hungry every day, and the majority of people will not be able to afford to shop in such stores.

But the government is gambling that the foreign retailers will shake things up where Indian companies cannot or will not, raising prices for farmers but lowering them for consumers and helping boost the wider economy.

It has plenty of support - especially among India's middle class.

Image caption, A new Wal-Mart wholesale store opened in Hyderabad in September

Some of Devendra's customers admit they would go to Tesco or Walmart if they could - just to spend less time in the Delhi traffic, says one.

The odd supermarket would make our shopping less time-consuming too. Devendra does not have everything, and he is often expensive.

So we buy most of our vegetables from the man who pushes a cart laden with fresh greens round our neighbourhood every morning.

Depending on what meat we want, we choose from several butchers - you get a personal service like this, but the quality is not always reliable.

As much as a third of the food grown in India rots before it even gets to market because of a lack of cold storage facilities.

The government says chains like Tesco will have to help fill this gap, if they want to come here. And it argues that in a market as vast as India's there will still be plenty of room for smaller shops.

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