With the Union Cabinet deciding to allow 51 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail on Thursday the way has been cleared for the entry of global supermarket giants in India. There are doubts and fears amid hopes for long-term gains
Photo: S Chandan
ONE of the conditions for 51% FDI in multi-brand retail proposed is that the players will source at least 60% of their farm produce requirements from small farmers. A small farmer is defined as one with up to 10 hectares. It is important to understand implications of FDI in food retail for various stakeholders.
The more important questions to be asked on the issue of FDI in retail are: Does it really help farmers or small farmers? Does it improve efficiency of food supply chains and help lower food inflation which India is grappling with? And of course, how does it impact traditional food retailers’ livelihood?
Small farmers may not gain
The operations of domestic fresh food supermarkets in India have not made any difference to the producer’s share in the consumer’s rupee so far (one of the arguments of the DIPP discussion paper for permitting FDI in retail) other than lowering the cost of marketing of the producers as supermarkets have collection centres in producing areas unlike the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) markets (mandis) which are in distant cities.
But these supermarkets will buy only ‘A ‘grade produce, that too on open market-based prices, and only a part of the output of farmers, who end up going to an APMC mandi to dispose of the remaining/rejected produce. The chains procure from “contact” farmers without any commitment to buy regularly as they do not want to share the risk of growers. Thus, the involvement of supermarket chains with producers is low and there is no delivery of supply chain efficiency as many of them have already wound up e.g in Gujarat.
Supermarkets and malpractices
Though the move to open up Indian markets to foreign retailers is meant to benefit small farmers, the condition of having 10 hectares of land will leave most of them out. There are other problems too:
- Domestic supermarket performance so far does not give any hope that FDI-driven supermarkets will be any different in terms of benefits to small farmers
- Buying and selling power of supermarkets due to market concentration will come in the way of benefits to farmers and consumers.
- Traditional retailers will suffer a loss of livelihood due to competition from supermarkets
- Many malpractices by supermarkets will not let farmers benefit
- Supermarkets do not lead to lower food prices if we see global evidence.
Key policy initiatives
Until now only 51% FDI in single-brand retail and 100% FDI in wholesale cash and carry trade was allowed. The paper put up by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) for public discussion and comments in mid-2010 and the 2010-11 Economic Survey had argued for FDI in food retail trade in India. In mid-2011 an inter-ministerial group also recommended FDI in retail to control food inflation. The following policy initiatives can be taken to safeguard the interests of local stake-holders:
- Slow down food supermarket expansion through mechanisms like zoning, business licences and trading restrictions.
- Strengthen competition laws and regulation of supermarkets
- Give legal protection to farmers and suppliers as is done in Japan
- Permit only formal contract farming, not ‘contact’ farming
- Set up an independent retail commission to supervise and regulate supermarkets to protect interests of suppliers, consumers and labour and support to local retailers and farmers
- Establish multi-stakeholder initiatives in food value chains and provide support to small producers and traditional food retailers.
- Producers’ organisations and the NGOs need to monitor and negotiate more equitable supply contracts with the supermarkets.
- Government should encourage producer companies and farmers’ co-operatives for collective bargaining with supermarkets
The noise about benefits to small-holders in high-value crops (read fruits and vegetables) due to supermarket linkages is exaggerated as these crops account for only 2% of the gross cropped area, and the direct linkage is either absent or pretty weak. This is not likely to change even with FDI in retail.
Further, due to the sheer size and buying power of foreign supermarkets, the producer prices may be depressed. In the UK there was a negative relation between the relative market share of a supermarket and the price paid to the suppliers in relation to the average price. The UK supermarket chain Tesco paid its suppliers 4% below the average price paid by retailers.
There have been a large number of supermarket malpractices across the globe which include payments to be on the supplier list (listing fees), threats of delisting if the supplier price is not low enough, payments and discounts from suppliers for promoting/opening new stores, rebate from producers as a percentage of their supermarket sales, minus margins whereby suppliers are not allowed to supply at prices higher than the competitor price, delayed payments, lowering prices at the last minute when the supplier has no alternative, changing quantity/quality standards without notice, just-in-time systems to avoid storage/inventory costs, removing suppliers from the list without good reason, charging high interest on credit, using tough contracts and penalties for any failure to supply.
If it is not misreported, the limit of 10 hectares is laughable as there are hardly 1% farmers who have more than 10 hectares of land. Thus, putting this condition is no good as it is too broad and covers 99% of farmers and, therefore, does not differentiate among farmers at all. Even if it is assumed that it is 10 acres (4 hectares), it will be more than 94% of all farmers (2005-06). How does this conditionality help really small-holders in whose name the permission is being granted? The retail players may work with the top layer (5%) of these farmers and still meet the conditions.
Small retailers to be hit
The supermarket expansion also leads to employment loss in the value chain as compared to 18 jobs created by a street vendor, 10 by a traditional retailer and eight by a shop vendor in Vietnam, a supermarket like Big C needed just four persons for the same volume of produce handled. Metro Cash & Carry employed 1.2 workers per tonne of tomatoes sold in Vietnam compared with 2.9 persons employed by traditional wholesale channel for the same quantity sold. The spread of supermarkets led to 14% reduction in the share of “mom and pop” stores in Thailand within four years of FDI permission. In India 33-60% of the traditional fruit and vegetable retailers reported 15-30% decline in footfalls, 10-30% decline in sales and 20-30% decline in incomes across the cities of Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Chandigarh, the largest impact being in Bangalore, which is one of the most supermarket penetrated cities in India.
Another proposed condition is that FDI in retail will be permitted in all cities with a population of more than one million. The question to be asked is: How many cites in India are really below one million population and how long? Further, given the size of the supermarket retail stores, they may be located in one city but their coverage in terms of potential clientele will extend to neighbouring towns as well.
Impact on food inflation
So far as the role of FDI-driven food supermarkets in containing food inflation is concerned, the evidence from Latin American (Mexico, Nicaragua, Argentina), African (Kenya, Madagascar) and Asian countries (Thailand, Vietnam, India) shows that the supermarket prices for fruits and vegetables and other basic foods were higher than those in traditional markets.
Also, the lower procurement prices through direct procurement from farmers need not lead to lower consumer prices in supermarket chains as procurement prices are more about the bargaining power of buyers and suppliers. Even if it is accepted that supermarkets are able to offer lower prices, the low-income households may face higher food prices because of reasons of distance from supermarkets, and higher prices charged by supermarkets in low-income areas. Thus, there is no direct correspondence between modern retail and lower food prices and, thus, better food security of the poor consumers. Therefore, the inflation containment logic for FDI in food retail does not stand ground given the empirical evidence from across the globe.
Thus, supermarkets would lead to the concentration of market power, with upstream suppliers facing buyer power in terms of lower prices and consumers (buyers) facing higher prices due to lower competition, besides traditional retailers suffering a decline in their business.
Need for regulation
The biggest fear in India is not that FDI in retail per se is worse than domestic corporate investment for farmers or traditional retailers; it is that there may not be adequate institutions and effective governance mechanisms to regulate and monitor operations of the global retailers.
If the monitoring of wholesale ‘cash n carry’ stores so far is anything to go by, there is no regulation and the norms are flouted openly at the store level by the existing players. They are found to do retail sales in the grab of wholesale as the size of a single purchase (minimum ticket size) was just Rs. 500 or Rs. 1,000 which does not seem to be governed by any regulation.
Given the global and Indian experience of supermarkets so far, it is important to slow down food supermarket expansion by mechanisms like zoning, business licences and trading restrictions. Further, there is need to limit buying power of the supermarkets by strengthening the competition laws like the legal protection given to subcontracting industries in Japan in their relations with large firms. These provisions are monitored by the Fair Trade Commission. If contract or “contact” farming is only another name for subcontracting prevalent in industry, then it is only logical to extend such legal provisions with necessary modifications to farming contracts.
Also, provisions for legally binding and clearly worded rules for a fair treatment of suppliers and an independent authority like a retail commission to supervise and regulate supermarkets are required. This authority should ban the buying of products below cost and selling below cost, improve local traditional markets for small growers, delay the pace of supermarket expansion, establish multi-stakeholder initiatives in the chains and provide support to small producers and traditional food retailers.
Producers’ organisations and NGOs need to monitor and negotiate more equitable contracts with supermarkets. The government should play an enabling role through legal provisions and institutional mechanisms like helping farmer co-operatives, producer companies and producer groups to facilitate the smooth functioning of supermarket linkages and avoid ill-effects.
The writer is a Professor, Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), Delhi. Email:email@example.com