Alas, Ramamritham is alive , well and strong and he rules upon all that he surveys (pun intended). The Indian Government will announce today in parliament that it would open up the retail sector to foreign investment. No doubt the Left will organise some bandhs, yell at 10,000 decibels in the Lok Sabha, and then this law will be passed while the opposition will walk out en masse.
Ostensibly, this is economic reform. Its a pathetic, 15cms of reform after a decade of nothing happening, but we'll reserve that criticism for another day. What has got my goat is Ramamritham's dirty footprint all across this move.
Firstly foreign investment of 100% will be allowed in Single Brand Retail, but only 51% in multi brand retail. Therefore a Marks & Spencer store can be 100% foreign owned, but Carrefour can't. Even though they may both sell precisely the same things (M&S does sell a lot of food). Pray why ??
Secondly Ramamritham has excelled himself in drafting a series of conditions for allowing even this. Look at some of them
- The minimum investment is $100 m. Where he got this figure is unclear. Why not $82.5 m? But at least we can live with this
- 50% of this $100 m has to be invested in "back end". Then our venerable hero has gone on to clarify that land, rentals and front end stores will not count as back end. No doubt detailed rules on what is back and what is front will be framed. (here is conclusive proof at last that Ramamritham doesn't know his front side from his back side) Lobbyists will work very hard to get IT systems included in back end. But R will qualify that Microsoft Office will not count as back end. Many months of fruitful work and litigation awaits.
- 30% has to be sourced by these companies from small scale (completely irrelevant if the product is rubbish and the consumer does not want it) No doubt a front small scale company will be set up who will buy the stuff from a big company and then sell it to the retailer to fulfill this quota. R being very smart will then draft rules to stop this. The retailer being equally smart will get a small scale company to buy from a small scale company to buy from a big company ....... and so on.
- Stores can be set up only in cities with 1 million population. Lobbyists will work to reduce this number to half a million. They will then lobby that last year Gummidipoondi crossed 1 million population and that R should not wait for another 10 years for the next census but instead pass an interim order allowing the store to be opened there.
How can we get this into Ramamritham's thick skull that we don't want him deciding what is good or bad for us as consumers. Or for the small Indian retailer who he is trying to protect with such quixotic rules. The Indian retailer needs no protection. He is quite a formidable force. Its by no means certain that small retailers will vanish just because Walmart came in - in India the economics of the retail industry, especially the relative high cost of real estate, is such that this is very unlikely.
In any case, how about letting the consumer choose. Rajalakshmi will vote with her feet and purse. She will buy where something is cheaper, better and where she likes to go. She deserves that freedom. Ramamritham should be booted from blocking the way.
PS : For those new to this space, Ramaritham is the mythical, fictional bureaucrat who takes orgasmic pleasure in framing complex, unnecessary and useless rules in order to make lives miserable for ordinary members of the homo sapiens species.