24 March 2008

Reliance Fresh and Capitalist Markets

[something i wrote maybe a month ago or more, and just found in blue ink admist my dying notebook]

Reliance Fresh and Capitalist Markets

In the last year, since I left in March, Reliance (one of the big trusts in this robber-baron phase of Indian Capitalism) has launched a nationwide chain of grocery stores they call "Reliance Fresh". I remember reading about it last year -- how Reliance was not merely going to market the produce but to buy the land and control the growing as well, dictating what and how and when, etc. They have clearly studied and traveled to learn from Amerikan agrobusiness conglomerates, who have succeeded in cartlestic control and vertical integration.

The agrobusiness companies graciously take the burden of profit upon themselves and contract out the risk to formerly-land-owning farmers. Obviously, in India, nobody believes in control of individual destiny anyhow, so in some sense its just big business following spirituality.

What's much more interesting to me this morning than another example and critique of corporate power and control -- because really there are so many positive popular power victories to write about -- is the benefit offered to the consumer.

Anarben, a sort of mother for me here, is married to Jayeshbhai, director of Gramshree (marketing exquisite handmade textiles to NRIs, starting women's cooperatives, paying in money, rice, and wheat (which commodities are harder to gamble and drink away for the husbands...)), social worker,  night-time MBA student. She shops and sends her help (which is me, sometimes) to shop at Reliance Fresh because it's fresh (good advertising) and the prices are fixed. In the markets and carts you have to haggle (get to haggle?), check the quality of every piece (if you have haggle well, they try to give you the shitty specimens, sometimes), and generally need Time and Awareness to get what you want, or, to put it less charitably, to avoid being cheated.

This is both theoretically and literally the Market System. Everyone is a price maker, no-one is a price-taker. At every moment you the consumer are in control, can go to the next illiterate old woman, and try for a cheaper, redder tomato. It's the same in Amerika -- as an employ of an organic farm and regular Farmers' Marketeer, I can vouch for the Market System.

So the irony I see here that makes me laugh from a different chakra than Manav's mediations is that we have been sold on the Capitalist System in the name of the market, the Open Market, the Free Market, proclaiming the virtues of the Invisible hand the anarchist power of deregulation. The pandits and mandarins and economists have sold us on Capitalism over Socialism, freedom over authoritarian central command, and slipped in private ownership of the means of production and labor as a commodity (with the lovely insecurity that must entail) on the side.

And yet, in practice, the consumers -- Anarben is exceptional in her beauty and commitment to social welfare, not her vegetative preferences -- want fixed prices, not to haggle, not to have to know anything, but to spend as little time in the Market sphere as they can so they can get home to studying or cleaning toilets or whatever. Distributing wheel chairs. Bathing kids. (all things we/they at Manav Sadhana do regularly, by the way)

The consumers want control. Systems. Authority. They don't want the power to make their own prices, to be the "consumer is King" that the ideology portrays. Isn't that funny?

The fourth irony is that one of Manav Sadhna's first stories -- or maybe even how it started -- tells of a woman who was walking by selling vegetables from a basket on her head, when Jayeshbhai and his brother Sanjaybhai invited her in for tea. She lays her burden down, has a cup of hot sweet milk tea, burps (likely) and gets up to go her merry way. Jayeshbhai helps lift her basket to put it on her hand and find it weights almost 40 kilos. He is amazed further at her strength and grace but wonders, Auntie!, why won't you have a rolling four-wheeled wonder cart?

It must be the money.

But Jayeshbhai has the capital so he lends or gives her the money (I don't recall) and everybody's lives are changed forever.

Now I know this is partly because I meet this woman with her cart every few days. I remember buying vegetables from her the first time (probably to cook lunch for the gopis last year) and was overcharged. Dammit.

And you don't even know how many times I've been sold bitter oranges in this country. Dammit.

And yet you know and I know Reliance Fresh is creating jobs by putting that Auntie out of business. Creating jobs by converting small independently owned farms into contract vegetable factories. Creating jobs for the (slightly, at least) educated (I imagine there are some such requirements, though I have not done the research) by putting independent micro-businesswomen like Auntie on the sides of the road.

Luckily there is here an awareness of Ahimsa, Sat, Chit, and Anand. The circular nature of time.

Perhaps Auntie will sell her cart to put her oldest daughter to high school so she can get a job at Reliance Fresh and her youngest daughter will continue going to the Central Market with a basket of miracles, miles and kilograms every morning until one day in our near future my sister Sansu will smile, open her heavy wooden door, and invite the young lady in for a cup of tea.

No comments: