Retail FDI is not just about Farmers, Consumers and Traders

The much-awaited policy decision to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail has become the most high profile reforms measure announced by the UPA government. It has not just been a booster shot for the UPA government—which seemed to be doing nothing right just a few weeks back—it has shifted the debate from corruption and policy paralysis to reforms, with businesses and middle class now finding themselves on the side of the government.

But what is the issue about? In short, those who support it argue that it will not only give consumers more choice (and hence more power), it will fetch better prices for farmers. Those who oppose it primarily argue that it will kill the small traders—the kirana store owners. So, the debate has essentially become one with small traders’  interest on one side and farmers’ (and to a smaller extent consumers’) interest on the other.

But here, we are missing out a really, really big point.

Wall-Mart is the largest civilian employer in the world, with more than 2 million employees. Tesco is the largest private sector employer in the UK. Woolworths and Wesfarmers are the two largest employers in Australia. Carrefour is one of the largest employers in the world, though because of its distributed business, it is not the largest employer in its home country, France. Sears, Target, Home Depot all feature among the largest employers in the US.

Wall-Mart employs more than two million people globally. In the US alone, it has 1.4 million employees—that is a little less than half a percent of the total US population. Tesco employs more than 500,000 people and Carrefour some 475,000 people. Both Woolworths and Wesfarmers in Australia employ more than 200,000 people each. Together, that is a little less than two percent of Australian population.

And how many employees does Futures Group—the largest retailer in India, a country of 1.3 billion people—employ? Just about 35,000 including its insurance and other businesses.

If you consider this aspect, there is not much to debate. The employment generation potential of organized retail sector is immense. And potentially widespread.

When IT came as a big bang service industry to India, it created a big employment opportunities. But that was restricted to a certain section of the society—the engineering graduates. And it created jobs in a few locations. The BPO industrt democratized it by providing opportunities to graduates, took the action to tier two cities, and reduced the time to impart right skill to these people to make them productive. Retail is the next logical wave. It will further democratize the organized services sector by  creating the jobs for those who have had some high school education, who can speak local language and maybe have some working knowledge of English. And the time to provide skill training to make these people productive reduces further.

The case of big box retail, hence, is justified, looking at it purely from an employment generation perspective.  It is sad our politicians and public commentators are missing the point.

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Filed under Indian Economy, Policy & Regulation

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