Mumbai Magic

Country Of Contradictions

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

On the success of India much depends — and that is problematic, as India is slow in deciding things, not only because it is a democracy but also because it a seething cauldron of people, languages, and castes. For example, India has a larger Muslim population than every country in the world save Indonesia, yet Muslims are a small minority in populous India.

Indeed, the great miracle of the post-independence governments of India is that the country has not unraveled. It stands as the world’s most populous democracy, astride history, one foot anchored in the past and one food firmly in modernity.

India is so far from America that it is more mysterious to us than China, our great neighbor across the Pacific. Yet India shall not be denied. Its decision to go nuclear, for example, is best understood as an unwillingness to accept a post-colonial identity that relegated it to a position lesser than China’s.

We interact with modern India often. In business, if you work with Tesco’s Fresh & Easy division and want to get paid, that transaction is processed in India. Personally, call up any number of customer service or technical support lines and you’ll be calling India.

Much depends on India because peace typically depends on a balance of power maintaining equilibrium in a region. Only a rising, modernizing and vibrant India will be able to offset the ambitions of a powerful China to the north and east and a rising Islamic world to the west. This thesis was set out by Samuel P. Huntington, a political theorist based at Harvard University in his seminal article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?” and expanded in his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

Admittedly, this is all heady stuff and, although India is a heavily vegetarian nation — 31 percent vegetarian, with an additional 9% consuming eggs, according to a 2006 Hindu-CNN-IBN survey — it seems unlikely that the produce sector will play much of a role in any great clash of civilizations that we may be unlucky enough to experience.

Yet, a produce sector functioning on world-class standards — as in the export of GlobalGAP-certified India grapes to Europe in the example Bryan gives — is a sign of both modernization and economic integration with the West — as trade and commerce weave a web that serves to tie India closer to the West and the West closer to India. A closeness we both may come to cherish if Huntington’s thesis should come to pass.

Another change, both marker, and cause of integration with the West is the rise of western-style retailing. Although, as Bryan identifies, this is still a small matter, companies such as Pantaloon Retail India Ltd., Aditya Biria Group, RPG Group and Reliance Industries have been transforming the retail scene.

Most recently Bharti Retail Ltd., a subsidiary of the Bharti Enterprises, which, among other things, operates a big cell phone company, has opened its first “Easy Day” food and grocery stores. Bharti also has a joint venture with Wal-Mart to provide the “back end” in the form of logistics and supply-chain management for stores and to open a chain of “wholesale” or “cash-and-carry” type stores.

These convoluted arrangements are legally necessary because India is still a very closed market. Foreign firms may open retail stores to sell only a particular product line — say a Gucci or Hermes boutique. Carrefour and Tesco are both known to be in negotiation for joint ventures similar to the one Wal-Mart has in place. Metro AG and Shoprite Holdings both have wholesale operations in India.

Yet although modern, clean and efficient shopping may be welcomed by many consumers and, over time, doubtless will both enhance standards of food production and processing throughout the country and offer consumers many new options from across India and around the world, for now, western-style retailing is very controversial. Protests, some becoming violent, have roared across the country as there is a popular fear that modern retailers will drive independent vendors and small shopkeepers out of business.

This is a concern particularly acute regarding fresh fruit and vegetable vendors. Some western-style retailers are agreeing not to sell fresh produce, while others are making a point to hire displaced shopkeepers. It is an eternal battle in India, as steps toward modernity — such as modern western-style retailing — must battle with powerful interests that seek to preserve the status quo.

This column is typically about research, and we typically think of research in terms of surveys and focus groups. Yet the most important part of research is knowing what areas to research. The buggy whip manufacturer would not be saved by more intensive surveying on consumer attitudes toward better buggy whip features.

So great research begins with stepping out of our conceptual lens and seeing the world anew. The very best way to do that is to travel and see the sites, hear the sounds, touch the textures and absorb the scents. It may remind you of things you have known; it often has hints of a world we have yet to see.

PMA has very few members in India, and its other members do very little business with India. Very few associations in that situation would think to have a meeting in India. Yet such an effort is research at its most valuable, confronting a new world and thinking about the questions we might ask.