India Bristles at Western-Style Economy

India's middle class is growing along with the country's western-style consumer economy. And so is a fundamental debate over whether the majority of Indians actually want to go in this direction. Some believe the changes threaten the well-being of millions of Indians shut out of the current boom.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here are some ways that India is becoming just a little bit more like the United States. The middle class is growing, and so is the country's Western-style consumer economy. So, however, is a fundamental debate over whether the majority of Indians actually want to go in this direction. Some believe these changes threaten the traditions and livelihood of millions of Indians not benefiting from the boom.

Here's NPR's Philip Reeves in New Delhi.

PHILIP REEVES: Sixty years have elapsed since the British left India. Next week, India marks the anniversary. There will be lavish Independence Day celebrations and speeches about India's achievements - its flourishing economy, its rise as a global power.

But here not much has changed. This is Chandni Chowk in Delhi, one of South Asia's older bazaars. Its alleys are crammed with tiny stalls, piled high with silverware and silk, with sacks of ginger and cinnamon, with saris and brilliantly colored wedding decorations.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Here you can buy anything, from a pile of gems to a peacock's feather. And you're expected to haggle.

(Soundbite of bazaar)

REEVES: Today though, Chani Chowk is the setting for a dispute of a different kind.

Unidentified Woman #2: Because the livelihoods are being taken away by the foreign companies, by the big corporations...

REEVES: Several hundred small traders, trade unionists and community activists have gathered on the streets. They're protesting against corporate giants setting up shopping malls and mega stores in India.

(Soundbite of protestors)

REEVES: Wal-Mart, go back, the protestors chant. And they start beating an effigy of a demon with Wal-Mart's name on it.

(Soundbite of protestors)

This week Wal-Mart announced the joint venture with Indians Bharti Enterprises to build up to 15 large Cash-and-Carry stores in India. These will actually be wholesale outlets, supplying shopkeepers rather then ordinary shoppers. Multi-brand foreign firms wanting to get into India's rapidly expanding retail market still face tight restrictions.

But activist and author Vandana Shiva, who's leading the Chandni Chowk protest, accuses Wal-Mart of trying to get into India through the back door.

Ms. VANDANA SHIVA (Activist): For Wal-Mart's clone culture to come and teach us how to run markets is stupidity.

REEVES: For Shiva, this is all about preserving a traditional culture.

Ms. SHIVA: No markets are as lively, as prosperous, as vibrant, as diverse as India's markets. In Chandni Chowk you generate per square foot five livelihoods in a land of lots of people and very little space.

REEVES: India has some 12 million mom-and-pop stores. These generate a multitude of spin-off jobs, many of which the protestors believe will disappear if corporate heavyweights are given free rein.

India known superstores and malls are already springing up all over the country. Wal-Mart denies its Cash-and-Carry operations will mean job losses. In fact, it says it expects to offer a better deal to India's retailers and farmers than they have now.

Beth Keck is Wal-Mart's director of International Corporate Affairs.

Ms. BETH KECK (Director, International Corporate Affairs): This is a growing economy, a growing consumer class here. And what we've found in other emerging markets that we've operated in is that the pie is actually just getting bigger for everyone.

(Soundbite of protestors)

REEVES: The protestors, though relatively few in number, say they're determined to make their voices heard. They've adopted a slogan - Quit Retail - copied from Mahatma Gandhi's Quit India movement launched against the British colonialists. And in the end, they say, Gandhi won.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Dehli.

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