Agra: Trade is the second oldest organized profession in civilizational history of the world. While capitalism is a few centuries old phenomenon, it has managed to completely alter production relations. In present age through consumerism it has sought to do so with trade as well. In form of shopping malls it has tried to strategically homogenize consumption patterns, transcending cultures and histories. Although the present day debate accepts this as inevitable, this article narrates the experience of Agra where this strategy has not materialized and looks into the reasons for the same.
To live in today’s urban India is to know that we are in the age of consumerism. Every square inch of urban space from the TV screens to the whole page newspaper ads and from the huge billboards at the main city square to even the outside of train coaches, have been covered with product promotions. The biggest symbols (literally) of consumerism era are the huge concrete and glass structures that we have come to know as shopping malls. These organized retail outlets are all the craze in about 23 big and small major cities of India so much so that their upsurge has become a real threat to the small scale unorganized retail economy of these cities. Bring in the ever so talked about foreign investment interest in multi brand retail by major players such as Walmart and the issue has already acquired an international dimension.
Most of the coverage on this issue in media or in academia presents either of the two sides of the debate. On the one hand there is the very optimistic position of how organized retail will rejuvenate rural economy based on assumptions of improving supply chain. This argument helps direct the policy towards regulatory reform, facilitating FDI in retail, based on socialist promises. The other optimistic note is that which targets the consumerist logic that rests on a middle class demographic, with higher disposable income and a changing priority of spending over saving.
On the other hand there is the pessimistic side which foresees a greater dependency of youth on employment funded by FDI and thus an increasing democratic deficit unable to steer the economy according to local public. Moreover the concern for smaller retailers or unorganized retail sector being vulnerable to the monopolizing tendencies of the big fishes of organized retail remains an important cause for not being so optimistic about these developments. As a theoretical concern these stores are taken as ideological tools for segregating spaces in order to separate the middle class consumer from the contaminating influence of the worse off who cannot afford this posh lifestyle.
But both these logics are based on a similar assumption; that the retail outlets as engines of consumerist capitalism are an unstoppable force which do dictate consumer behavior and have the power to mould it in whichever way they like. This assumption treats consumers as programmable softwares without a will of their own, such that local culture, history and environment do not play a role in determining their choices and it is only the force of market (or capital, as Marxists would like to term it) that determines their logic. But the question is, can there be a scenario in which such super stores fail to displace the existing retail patterns and thus render the aforementioned positive and negative concerns futile?
The answer is that as much as there are scenarios where shopping malls are immensely successful and a force to be reckoned with, there are also those where they have failed to capitalize on the opportunity of middle class consumerism. One such example is one of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world, Agra. With Taj Mahal as the centre of attraction and three more UNESCO declared world heritage sites, this city is a major revenue collector owing to a tourism and hospitality industry that has lasted for decades.
With sudden spurt in economic growth of India earlier in the last decade, the benefits of which were mostly accrued by the middle class, Agra too had its fair share of large income spenders. Swearing in of a majority government, after 17 long years of instability, in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 led to the strengthening of the local development authority and this resulted in ripening of immense opportunities in the real estate sector in the city much like many other cities at the time. Many new residential projects came at the back of the promise of the launching of Taj expressway (now Yamuna expressway) the first ever in the state linking Agra to Noida. The next logical step for these developers was to bring up shopping malls as well to the up and coming area near Taj Mahal, to further increase land value and also capitalize on the opportunity of a burgeoning middle class economy.
Thus in 2006 the city witnessed the opening up of its first ever shopping mall, but only half the section, since half of it was still under construction then and remains incomplete even now. The section completed however only started with a Big Bazaar store and an entire floor of Food Court, both being firsts in the city. Eventually came other stores and then Fun Cinemas, the first multi screen Cineplex in the city. Another shopping mall from the TDI group opened the next year in March. It boasted of Pantaloons and Big Cinemas besides a Mc Donalds outlet and few other high profile stores. Both projects received much adulation and cheer and even though being located far from the main city registered steep increase in footfall. Features such as high end escalators, all air conditioned shopping experience, multi level parking etc. were new to an average city resident and it seemed that the city had arrived as a complete tourist destination.
Interestingly both malls started functioning following a similar strategy of phased opening. Both let sizeable stores on rent to big players like Big Bazaar and Pantaloons, recovering some money after having spent a lot in their construction. New and big names in retail shopping were initially announced, some of which were later launched and some which never did. Local media played a huge role in creating hypes for these developments. With such bombastic developments in one part of the city it seemed that other parts were also poised to take advantage of the situation. New projects were announced of which a huge shopping mall, solely dedicated to wedding related shopping and events, started being constructed on the National highway 2 connecting Agra to Delhi.
With these developments it seemed that the very shopping experience of the city would change unrecognizably and the long running market streets and alley markets will be facing huge losses soon. Many local multi brand apparel stores began to adapt to these changes and introduced mall like (browsing on your own) features alongside the continuing salesperson experience.
Things went smoothly for the super stores for a couple of years. Multiplexes became highly profitable. Some of the long running traditional single screen cinemas went out of business. Many others were forced to become air conditioned. Small market plazas began to come up but preferred to call themselves as malls even though they lacked the requisite infrastructure and services.
But the initial euphoria began to die down at the turn of the decade. Stores were not doing so well anymore. Cineplexes too were hit. The footfall in malls had dropped drastically. Most of the stores that had previously announced opening, now aborted the plans. And within a year and few months, entire floors of previously inhabited store space were completely abandoned. By the end of 2011, Pantaloons was long shut, so was E-zone (a multi brand electrical appliance store), food court was dismantled, KFC was shut down and the suit followed for most other stores. The biggest blows were the closing down of Big Bazaar and Fun Cinemas.
Many local businessmen who had rented out stores in these establishments began to cancel their contracts. The worst hit were those malls which had just finished construction only now. The initial plan for an ambitious wedding mall was long given up and a local developer Sarv Kapoor instead took over the project, but all he could manage to open up was a local brand multiplex and one or two lonely stores in an otherwise half finished huge shopping structure. Meanwhile single screen theatres have retained some activity by adapting novel features of screening different movies in different time slots in a single screen itself. The footfall has increased manifold at local market streets especially Sadar Market maintained by the Cantonment Board with major brands having launched their new outlets here. The rent for even small chat shops has increased drastically to about one lakh Rupees per month.
These developments have only been compounded by the fact that no new major retail brands or cineplexes have been launched in these malls for the past two years. Within a span of four years the happy story of shopping malls came to a premature climax. While major cities are coming up with yet new malls every month, what could have spelled doom for them in Agra, is worth introspecting.
It is not the case however that the city’s population has rejected consumerism and has opted for austerity instead. New stores keep launching as do the food outlets like KFC, but only as individual establishments. At the same time within a three kilometer radius of these malls, there hardly seemed any effect on the small shopkeepers and traders. If anything more small and medium sized shops were opened as the new suburb emerged. The roads became so crowded with street hawkers that the administration had to launch a major anti-encroachment drive in the area amid much protest.
Based on these developments contrary to experiences in major cities, a few reasons can be cited which can explain the dismal performance of the shopping malls phenomenon in the city. Firstly, local shoppers it seems have rejected a panopticon (refer Jeremy Bentham) like structure that allows their shopping surveillance, in favour of a more homely and personal shopping experience that allows an easy interface between the buyer and the seller. People have long associations with shops dating back to generations.
Secondly, the city has an economy that is mainly driven by trade instead of heavy or soft industries. The trading community both in forms of guilds and caste communities is strongly knitted both economically as well as culturally. The traditional shopping establishments could wither an onslaught of shopping malls probably owing to these communal associations.
Thirdly the entertainment packages in form of multi-screen theatres with exorbitantly priced tickets never appealed to the traditional cinema goers who would like to spend lesser on admission as well as refreshments. In any case the cinema business has been hit hard with many single screen theatres also closing down. The reasons for this must be looked into separately.
Last of all and probably the oddest reason is the association of the shopping experience with spicy food. Almost all the traditional shopping streets in the city have chat streets and alleys complementing them. As much as theories of a composite shopping experience in shopping malls with a fast food binging spree hold true, so do they apply here but the palette is what makes the difference. Shopping malls provide food catering to a westernized palette with lesser tangy and spicy flavours. Foodies prone to outrageously hot and spicy flavours find that food bland and prefer the traditional Indian chat with spicy and sweet flavours complementing each other. This is one of the distinctive examples where cuisines can affect the political economy of a city.
In this experience a city’s history of trade and commerce and a specific culture of shopping, two factors that the shopping malls seek to counter everywhere, proved too strong to be diminished. The assumption of the inevitability of neo-liberal forms of consumerism is indeed well established, owing to the widespread experiences of big cities. But these are the places which experience large scale in-migration of population which results in enmeshing of existing culture with the new, to artificially create shared experiences of collective subjectivity. The smaller towns and trade prone areas are more closed out in that sense. Employment is generated in very limited numbers mostly in banks and hotels and with existing markets already catering to consumers’ demand, not many people are ready to invest in newer forms of shopping to cater to a limited migratory middle class professional population.
Of course this assessment is limited to the present and with further developments things may change. But as far as a generalized projection of a healthy growth of shopping malls is concerned, this experience of about half a decade proves otherwise. The contingencies of taste and preferences prove that individual subjectivity also plays a role in determining the course of modernity. Trade is the oldest occupation after agriculture in the world and it would take a lot more for capitalism to homogenize it completely than just a concept of retail that may create a homogeneous empty space transcending cultures and moulding ‘consumers’ alike.