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In Bengal's industrial wasteland, retail offers hope

Last updated on: October 15, 2012 13:54 IST

In Bengal's industrial wasteland, retail offers hope

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Namrata Acharya in Kolkata

The 100-year-old Metropolitan Building in Esplanade has an illustrious history.

Till the 1950s, it used to house a huge foreign departmental store called Whiteway & Laidlaw that closed down after imports and foreign ownership of stores were restricted by the government of independent India.

Subsequently, it came to house one of the oldest retail outlets in India, the Khadi & Village Industries Commission.

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Image: Kolkata.
Photographs: Reuters.

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In Bengal's industrial wasteland, retail offers hope

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Today, however, the 37,000-square feet heritage building flaunts the new face of retail business in India. It is one of the biggest Big Bazaar retail outlets in Kolkata.

 While much of the heritage house has been refurbished, the left side room of the second floor still preserves some of the antiquated look.

The arched roofs and tall columns, with vividly coloured walls are cluttered with posters of film stars and motivational quotes. It is the Fun Zone for employees, mostly in the age group of 20-30, at the Big Bazaar. Every week, the outlet gets close to 22 CVs.

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Image: Metropolitan Building in Esplanade.
Photographs: Courtesy, Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons.

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In Bengal's industrial wasteland, retail offers hope

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With an average salary between Rs 6,000-10,000, the retail sector in Mamata Banerjee's homeland, West Bengal, has provided jobs to as many 40,000 young people in the state, according to data from Retailers Association of India.

Banerjee's dislike for organised retail is well known. After pulling out from UPA-II, her government has passed a resolution in the assembly against domestic capital and foreign direct investment in retail.

Kolkata is dotted with Big Bazaar, Spencer's, More and many such outlets that are now spreading to less-penetrated markets of Bengal.

In the industrial belt, Durgapur, which is about 160 km from Kolkata, there is an acute shortage of unskilled young workers.

In the last three-four years, almost all major domestic retail outlets have opened shops, providing jobs to hundreds of young people at the undergraduate level, who otherwise would be working as industrial workers, security guards or drivers.

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Image: Kolkata.


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In Bengal's industrial wasteland, retail offers hope

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Kolkata is one of the fastest growing retail markets in India, at par with Bangalore, according to Kumar Rajagopalan, chief executive officer, Retailers Association of India.

Kishore Biyani had always believed that Kolkata was a market reckon with. Way back in 1997, the first Pantaloon store from the Biyani stable was launched in Kolkata.

"We have been present in Bengal for the last five years, and have been growing consistently. Before this financial year is over, we will add another at least 4-5 stores in West Bengal," said Pranab Barua, business director, Apparel & Retail Business, The Aditya Birla Group.

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Image: A worker works at a newly-opened Metro cash-and-carry outlet in Kolkata.
Photographs: Parth Sanyal/Reuters.

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In Bengal's industrial wasteland, retail offers hope

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The employment in the retail sector has been growing at around 15-20 per cent annually, according to Retailers Association of India.

However, the entry-level salaries are not so alluring, agrees Rajagopalan. Last year about 3.5 lakh jobs were added in the sector. It's another matter a section of politicians are projecting foreign retailers to just devour jobs.

"Retail is not seen as a sector where one expects to get high salaries at entry level. However, there is an acute shortage of experienced people. There are instances when even graduates have gone up to the level of regional head," says Rajagopalan.

Despite the positives, FDI in retail does not seem to be a panacea for the unemployment problem in the country, as it would not led to a deluge of jobs.

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Image: A worker pushes a cart of potatoes at a Metro cash-and-carry outlet in Kolkata.
Photographs: Parth Sanyal/Reuters.

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In Bengal's industrial wasteland, retail offers hope

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"The number of jobs created in the sector would depend on the regulations. Also, the real surge in jobs could be seen only after three years of opening up of retail to the foreign players. Eventually, there might not be many jobs," said Rajagopalan.

A report by UNI Global Union, which represents together over 900 trade unions representing over 15 million members across countries, on the track record of one of the world's largest retailer, and the implications for FDI in multi-brand retail in India (March 2012)," points out that without adequate safeguards put in place, FDI in multi-brand retail will likely lead to wide- spread displacement of Indian workers in retail, logistics, agriculture and manufacturing. 

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Photographs: Reuters.

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The report mentions that the company is able to charge low prices in large part because it pays as little as possible – in some cases poverty wages – to its workers.

"In India, where modern retail work is still a relatively recent phenomenon, we believe that (the company) will attempt to set compensation and worker rights standards as low as possible to begin with," the report said. 

Aloof to all the political and economic concerns, is Soumi, a new joinee at one of the retail outlets is Kolkata.

She just wants more job opportunities in a state bereft of big investments. Earlier, she used to work in a standalone watch shop, but with an increment of Rs 2000, her new job provides better working conditions, she feels.





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