Walmart and the other America

Exposing the rhetoric behind campaign for consumer rights

By Garga Chatterjee
Published: Wednesday 31 October 2012

Garga ChatterjeeThere is the United States of America and then there is the idea of USA that exists in the minds of significant portions of the middle classes across the globe. This idea varies slightly according to the region, reflecting specific aspirations and anxieties. In the Indian continent, it is increasingly not the one made in Hollywood, given the “IT-coolie”-fired traffic to the US. One important element of the newer idea of the US that is beamed to us daily by TV, Skype, photographs, phone conversation and e-mails is the ease of the consumer experience in multi-brand retail stores as big as football stadia, with the variety of wares on offer seemingly endless—from bananas to bikinis and beyond. Walmart is unquestionably the most prominent of these chain stores, a superbrand. Viewed in another way, it is a shop the name of which is more famous than the brand names of the goods it sells.

I have been living in the US for the past few years, mostly in the cities of the east coast. The past six years have been in Boston. A map of the area (figure 2) shows the many municipal towns that constitute much of the Boston area. My location, however, deprives me of the “quintessential American” experience of shopping at Walmart. In the map, B and C represent the two Walmarts in the vicinity. I live in Cambridge, hence I am at least 16 km from each of them. Given that I use public transport and my bicycle to move around, both these locations are quite inaccessible. Walmarts and other similar stores cannot exist in the US in the absence of the stupendous subsidy to the highway systems that make the stores viable, not to mention the ultimate unsustainable mass-culture of individual car-ownership that makes such stores reachable. However, the map may be misleading as it gives an impression that Walmart stores are relatively sparse in the US. That is far from true, as is evident from the 2006 map (figure 1) of Walmart locations in the US. This corresponds well with the population density map of the nation, in case anyone was inquisitive about the large patches of virgin territory in the western half. The absence of Walmart in my area and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.

It is not that Walmart did not want to set up a store in my vicinity. In fact, it tried hard. When I was a student, as a part of my on-campus job as a server and bartender for the Harvard University Dining Services, I would be deputed to various addresses around the area to serve at parties, clean dishes and do similar other chores. One such assignment was in the neighbouring municipal area of Watertown. When I was going into a house, I saw a sign on the lawn: “No Walmart—No more big boxes”. Big box is the nickname for Walmart and other such stores, for that is what they look like. Since I knew there were not any such stores in the area, I wondered what this was about. After my working hours were over, I talked to the house owner, and he told me he was part of the burgeoning local citizens’ movement called Sustainable Watertown, which was opposing a proposed Walmart “big-box” store near the central square of Watertown. In the US, citizens have a say in what happens to their areas, and elected officials can veto proposals—be they of setting up stores, building highways or railways. He informed me that they had been getting a lot of support, which had pressured some elected city councilors to not court Walmart.

Walmart locations in Boston area

Fast-forward a few years. In November 2011, the incumbent vice-president of the Water City Council came close to being defeated by a candidate fighting almost solely on the agenda of stopping Walmart from gaining a foothold in Watertown. In June 2012, Walmart announced it was shelving plans to set up a shop in Watertown. At the same time, it also suspended plans to build a store in the neighbouring Somerville town. Walmart spokesperson Steven Restivo said, “In the case of the Somerville and Watertown sites, we made a business decision that the projected cost of investment would ultimately exceed our expected return.” There was another thing common to these two towns—both had popular citizens’ initiatives opposing entry of Walmart.

In response, Barbara Ruskin of Sustainable Watertown issued a statement: “We, the members of Sustainable Watertown, applaud the news of our campaign’s success and pledge to continue to work with town residents and members, supporting neighborhood groups, taking an early role in planning and development projects, and providing venues for discussions of sustainability. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the town for a positive vision of a healthy, just and prosperous community.” This is not a long-winded argument against Walmart or other large, multi-brand retail chain stores. This is a reminder that there are gaps in the network of stores Walmart wants to establish. These gaps are populated by real people, who, like most of us, are consumers who love low prices. But many of them think they would have to pay a high price in terms of life in their community if they bite the “low price” bait. These gaps when joined together by an alternative perspective of what really matters also form a USA. This view extends beyond Watertown and Somerville and beyond the faux anti-corporate sensibilities of affluent white hipsters. Among the cities, towns and villages across the nation that have put a low upper limit to the maximum area that can be covered by a “shop”, one can count Ashland (Oregon), Oakley (California), Madison (Wisconsin), Ravalli County (Montana), Sante Fe (New Mexico) and San Diego (California). Join the dots to get a picture of a USA of Walmart-gaps that few hear about, but which exists nonetheless.

The Indian government has cleared foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. This adds diversity and capital power to the already existing network of Indian multi-brand retail giants. In a rare and cunning gesture of state’s rights, it has added an enabling rider so that individual states can chose to not permit the entry of foreign, multi-brand retail entities in their respective areas. The Centre has made a lot out of this enabling clause and has waxed eloquent about its commitment to state’s rights as well as democratic principles. It has also driven home the opposite point that the refusal of certain provinces should not hold up the power of other areas to host Walmart. This is quite reasonable. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the Centre is indeed sensitive to the differing aspirations and “development” trajectories of different regions, why does it not have such clauses across the board, in all aspects of trade and commerce and beyond that, in much of what are called the Central and Concurrent lists?

The Indian government never tires of touting its successes in the devolution of power by the Panchayati Raj system. In fact, taking the logic of devolution to its logical end, why does it not accord the lower units of the local government the power to veto decisions and policies they think are inimical to the interests of their areas? The apparently libertarian rhetoric in the feverish canvassing for the rights of the individual as a consumer is exposed when the Centre devolves powers to local bodies without giving them the veto power over most decisions that govern life on the ground. Unless the local bodies decide to compromise fundamental rights of the individual citizen, what is there to fear? If the gram panchayats could decide the fate of what comes up in their areas, Nandigrams of the future could be avoided. They might choose to have Walmart or not. On being liberated from “New” Delhi notions of constitutionality, that is what democracy looks like. There is no second-guessing the potentialities of human plurality.

Garga Chatterjee is a columnist and postdoctoral fellow at MIT

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