The other day our entire family visited Hyper City, the new hyper-market in the premises of the mall known as DB City. Promoted by a big vernacular media group, the Mall is situated close to the biggest business district of the central Indian city of Bhopal. Built on the pattern of any other mall, it is gradually filling up with shops, chain-stores, eateries and even a bowling alley, currently a curiosity in the town.
The shops in the Mall are, mostly, purveying branded garments, shoes, perfumes, cosmetics cell phones and suchlike. The Hyper City, however, is a different kettle of fish. In one massive hall there is virtually everything that one may happen to need. From fresh to packaged and processed food, grocery, furniture, wellness and sports equipment, crockery, glassware, quality kitchenware to the latest in electronics, you name it – and it’s all there and at a scale that has never been seen before in this town. The place is packed with stuff and one cannot fail to wonder the scale in which all this stuff is being manufactured or some even being imported, curiously like in America, mostly from China. Obviously, there is a lot of money and people are happily throwing it around.
As my brother remarked, it is a quantum jump for Bhopal. From shopping in the claustrophobic narrow streets of the Chowk of Old Bhopal 50-odd years ago to a swanky hyper market is quite a transition. The townsfolk are exposed for the first time to numerous escalators, automated ramps and modern lifts that are not closed and claustrophobic, but have transparent walls. Naturally, there are crowds of people –old and young, mostly the latter – from all sections of society. I even espied a few who were from the hinterland and some others who appeared to be from some shanty-town of the city. They had all come to gawk at things, features and fixtures that are strange and new to them.
The current generation is lucky as it is exposed to all that the new Century materialism has to offer. Whatever is available in the advanced countries of the East and the West are all available here and, what’s more, almost simultaneously as they come out of the assembly lines of sorts. Opening up of the economy in the early ‘90s of the last century has made all this possible giving a huge heave to the consumerist-culture that has now well and truly set in and is on the upswing.
This was not so in our times. We grew up and lived most of our life in a closed economy – an economy that pretended to be socialistic in character but was far from it. It was such a closed economy that even as late as in the early 1980s we had not seen many of the mechanical and electronic equipment that were freely in use elsewhere in the world, including in the neighbouring South East Asian countries, some of which later came to be known as “The Asian Tigers” for their rapid economic progress. For instance, TVs were a rarity and we had never seen, leave alone use, a simple thing like a calculator. In the offices, photocopiers were unavailable whereas, we later saw, these were in regular use in most offices in S-E Asia. We were still in the ‘stencils age’.
I recall, when, in the course of a professional programme on public administration conducted in 1981 by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, my colleagues and I were taken to South-East Asia I came across escalators for the first time in my life in our hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Later, in Singapore, I saw for the first time a mall. I still remember its name – CK Tang – which was recommended to the entire group by the Indian High Commissioner. The place was stuffed with the goods that were seldom available in the shops in New Delhi. From perfumes to shoes, to branded luggage and apparels, Japanese cameras and electronic items, all were available in great profusion. We hardly were able to buy any of that stuff, anyway, availability of foreign exchange under the socialist economy being so limited.
A year later, in 1982 when I happened to visit Japan I could not help feeling how far behind, materially speaking, we were. But, of course, Japan was an advanced, industrialised country. In the area called Akihabara in Tokyo VCRs, invisible then in Delhi shops, were stacked up on shelves from floor to the ceiling. Food processors, still to make their advent in India, were available in profusion. In Shinjuku, again in Tokyo, as soon as one entered the famous shop by the name Yudobashi one would hear a racket – the salesmen of various famous Japanese brands of cameras calling out to all-comers to sample their stuff, like the meat-sellers used to do years ago in the meat market in my hometown, Gwalior. And, Shinkasen, the Bullet Train that we travelled in to Osaka, was out of this world.
Forget the malls or the chain-stores of Mitsukoshi, basketfuls of calculators or 35mm colour-film rolls would be placed outside small stores. One just had to pick up according to one’s need and pay up. On virtually every street one would find an outfit that processed colour films in a matter of hours on automatic processing machines. In our case, even in New Delhi one had to hand over exposed colour rolls at the Kodak outlet on Janpath which would send them for processing to Bombay. The processed stuff would come back only after three weeks or so.
Things are far different now and the country has travelled a long way since the early ‘80s. The GDP has risen spectacularly and India has become the target of all big producers because of its billion people and is considered the biggest market after China. All the international big names of various industries have, therefore, set up shop in the country, fostering consumption and encouraging consumerism.
That, however, is what is worrying. The malls, hyper-markets and suchlike have a flip side. While the burgeoning middle classes are having a great time, the aspirations of the lower classes are being spurred on. After all, today’s lower classes are tomorrow’s middle classes, who, in course of time, will fall prey to the same consumer culture. Can India really afford such a culture encouraged by the glitz, glitter and the glamour of malls and hyper markets?
One shudders to imagine what our Planet Earth will be like if hundreds of millions of Indians ape the consumerism of the West. About seventy years ago Gandhi-ji had said that we would need the resources of two planets if Indians were to acquire the living standards of the British. We were only three hundred million then – when the country was still undivided. Now we are a billion and more and, despite widespread poverty with abysmally low levels of consumption, ecologically we are already in the red.