Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The foolish Indian middle class

Less than a few kilometres from affluent south Delhi is the sprawling neighbourhood of Sangam Vihar, home to Mukesh, who sells vegetables. He lost half his business in the week that Reliance Fresh opened a supermarket down the street. He has four children and his wife is worried about the future. He doesn't believe he can find other work in Delhi, where even educated people are unemployed. "No, I don't think there's much else to do. If I can't make it here, we just have to go back to our village." Full report.

We're fascinated by refrigeration and airconditioning. We get excited about buying our spinach in supermarkets, branded, suffocated in plastic, labelled "organic" and dated "consume by next week". That way, we believe, we'll know for sure we're getting our money's worth. And it may even be a rupee or two cheaper than our sabziwalla is selling it for.

We're the great Indian middle class. Because we now have dreary outsourcing jobs that pay $1200 a month, we believe we have globalized and arrived. We've invested our life's savings in homes that are not even on the power grid, yet we believe we're smart. We believe we're like the middle class of any other country, and not just because we now wear Gap tees (never mind that cotton jersey feels heavy and stinks in the hot Indian climate, or that we have to hand-wash everything because the generator ran out of diesel mid-way through the rinse cycle), but also because we have begun to resemble our colonizers in ways deeper than the brand-name of the outer husk: we live beyond our means, and we are willing to let peasants die a slow death or simply have our government execute them for resisting.

Oddly enough, little of this might be necessary if only we could recognize the good things about our lives the way they are. The not-so-good things could be resolved with creative local solutions.

The utter lack of refrigeration in storage and transport is the greatest assurance that our "chaotic and unorganized" sabziwallas are selling us truly fresh produce. Not to mention that unrefrigerated produce is more environment-friendly, which reduces other costs in the long run. Are supermarkets the only way to reduce the discomfort and chaos of sabzi shopping? Or perhaps we could ensure home delivery services and designated tree-lined marketplaces in every neighborhood?

For now, here's a taste of the business practices we're so excited to be importing, so that we can become more like our colonizers. BBC reporter Audrey Brown worked undercover at Sainsbury and Tesco, the two leading grocery chains in the UK, and wrote this report. Excerpts are below. The full report is long, but worth reading!

...The benefits are obvious. They are open all hours, offer free parking, have a huge selection and, most importantly, they can be a lot cheaper than the High Street. This is what attracts 16 million customers to Sainsbury's and 20 million to Tesco every week.

...[the] dating system [for merchandise] could easily be changed by staff who would wipe out existing dates and write in other, later dates. It is not illegal to sell food past its sell-by date, but it is store policy at both Sainsbury's and Tesco that once the food has passed that date it should not be sold to customers. Yet, I saw food past its sell-by date on the fresh food counters at both supermarkets...

At Tesco, it was re-packaged and re-labelled with a new date and reduced in price, sometimes days after it should have been sold or removed from the shelves. A lot of the time, the counter staff treated the meat and fish...with indifference...there were times at Tesco when they had no idea what the real sell by date was as they had altered it so many times. Sometimes it was not until the food smelled bad that it was eventually thrown away.

...An ex-supermarket manager told me..."If you want to make food look fresher, you can mix batches....If you take four or five slices of something from one day, you can mix it in with four, five slices of something from the next day."

,,,But I never expected to witness the level of penny-pinching...one employee...at Sainsbury's...cut the end of a brown and drying ham joint so it looked fresher and could be put back on display, thus hopefully be sold to put more pennies in the company's coffers. My boss on the meat counter at Tesco instructed me to use a bin-bag style cover to put over the meat at night, which would have been fine, except he was so intent on saving money that he insisted I use the same one night after night - marked with blood from the food - rather than getting fresh ones.

And all for the sake of saving tiny sums.

During my induction at Sainsbury's, the trainer instructed us to "treat every penny as though it were your own". That sounded fair enough. Nobody wants to waste food unnecessarily.

However, over the course of my investigation I witnessed individuals taking this motto far too literally...Even as a counter assistant, the pressure other staff seemed to feel was almost tangible.

In a bizarre attempt to explain his dates-changes, [one Tesco manager] used the company's commitment to green issues by saying "Tesco doesn't like to throw away anything. That's why we recycle. That meat can be recycled". But I'm not sure a commitment to a green policy quite extends to the unlawful selling of meat.

1 comment:

bee said...

true. we indians are enamoured of everything 'phoren' or emulating it.