Shopkeepers protest but shoppers don't mind foreign retailers

Protests over the entry of global retail chains such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour saw tens of thousands of shop-owners downing their shutters across India Thursday, demanding reversal of the decision to allow foreign equity in their sector

The nationwide protest was called by the Confederation of All India Trade Associations to demand the withdrawal of the decision last week to permit up to 51 percent foreign equity in multi-brand retailing and 100 percent in single-brand format.

"It has been a successful bandh (closure). It demonstrates the anger and resentment of traders on the crucial issue of permitting foreign equity in retail trade sector," said Praveen Khandelwal, secretary general of the confederation, over phone in New Delhi.

According to IANS reports from the national capital, Mumbai and other cities across the country, markets bore a deserted look, as most shops, save pharmacies and some grocery stores, remained shut. Some bigger stores were open.

"Around five crore (50 million) traders belonging to 10,000 associations of traders are participating in the bandh. They also participated in protest marches in markets across the country," Khandelwal told IANS.

The association said limiting retail stores with foreign equity in cities that have more than one million population, with minimum sourcing of 30 percent from small and medium enterprises, meant little for small traders.

"The foreign retailers will open in big cities. But they will source from mandis across rural areas and small towns. Their money-power can corner supplies. They will dominate. This is not good," Khandelwal said.

"The existing Indian retail structure, having little entry barriers and limited skill sets, acts as a safety valve. The entry of multinational corporations in retail trade will largely destroy this safety valve and unemployment cannot be ruled out."

But not all came in support of the strike.

"It is not that I will stop going to my local store across the street. But surely I will welcome the choice of good products at cheaper price in an much better environment. The traders are also not doing any charity," said Seema Singh, a homemaker in New Delhi.

Echoing similar sentiments, Rajesk Lakshman, a businessman in Mumbai, said: "Whether I want to go to Wal-Mart, Reliance Fresh or a local kirana store, I as a consumer should be given a choice. All this is being unnecessarily being politicised."

In fact, two apex corporate lobbies, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), have said organised format accounted for just four percent share in India's $450 billion retail market.

The chambers also said politics must be kept out of such prudent decisions.

Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma have maintained that the decision, which comes with several safeguards, will not only secure the small traders but also create 10 million jobs in a matter of just couple of years.

Even organisations representing farmers feel it will benefit them by removing middlemen.

But the traders said they had the support of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, among other political parties and labour unions.

The two houses of parliament have transacted no business since the start of the winter session Nov 22 -- the last four of the eight unproductive days have been on account of the opposition unrelenting in its demand for roll back in the retail policy.

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