The animated debate in Lok Sabha threw up many interesting and not-so-interesting, convincing and not-so-convincing, poetic and not-so-poetic arguments in favour and in opposition of Foreign Direct Investment in multi brand retail in India.Many scholarly articles on the subject have flooded the media. There are also articles carrying the views of farmers' associations, cooperatives, traders' associations, dalit entrepreneurs' association and so on and so forth. However, my reluctance about having Walmart stores in India is more to do with the fact that the stores promote fast food over slow food and the concomitant lifestyle, a lifestyle that emphasizes individualism, short lived joys, a restless search for excitement and ill health.
Even without Walmart, we are inundated with packaged food and food supplements some of which only remotely resemble food. The advertising is persuasive, the availability is increasing exponentially, and a significant proportion of the urban middle class is rapidly making the transition to a state of affairs where the family either hires a cook, or eats packaged food. Families don't cook together, and cooking is considered a tedious chore. I am no proponent of a woman's- place- is- in- the- kitchen school of thought, but I do believe that it is a tragedy that women are so rapidly losing the joy of cooking for the family. To a lesser extent, this loss is that of fathers too. One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father spending hours in the kitchen, continuously stirring besan to the accompaniment of the Dilip Kumar songs he was so fond of humming ---- the fragrance of ghee and freshly prepared besan barfi will forever be associated in my mind with my father, and the love he poured into cooking for his children.
Then of course there is the issue of packaged food being available 24x7 so that the golden rule that constituted the foundation of good health is now observed only in breach----- meals at fixed times, and no food past 9 or 10 pm.
Packaged food is also so convenient and easy to prepare (where it requires any preparation) that it encourages the tendency of teen age children to avoid the dining table and family meals and family conversations.
The fact that packaged food contains chemical preservatives and colours and taste enhancers most of which have a deleterious effect on health over a long period of time is well documented and it is no tribute to our intelligence that we ignore all sane advice and succumb to the temptations of convenience, ease-of-preparation etc etc.
There was a time when delicacies were the special attraction of festivals and weddings. Now, we endeavour daily to experiment with different cuisines and different flavours and textures and different presentations simply because they are so easily available. The unintended result is that we weary too soon, too easily get bored, too quickly begin to look for more exciting food to eat. Eating is not so much a means to maintain good health as an exercise in "having a good time". Boredom terrifies us.
This is exactly the kind of lifestyle that Walmart will aggressively promote. In USA, more than 50% of their sales turnover is on account of groceries and the grocery aisles are overflowing with packaged convenience food of every possible description.
Genetically modified food is only beginning to make inroads into India ---it will undoubtedly get a push with Walmart's entry even before the Indian public has become aware of its dangers.
Food wastage will increase too ---- an insightful article by P Sainath in The Hindu spoke of Walmart's insistence on the cultivation of large onions ----- the onion is so large that small families do not consume the whole onion, and throw away what remains after cooking, only to dig out an equally large onion the next time -----the more food gets wasted, the more it is bought.
Perhaps it is old fashioned to want family meals, lovingly cooked, promoting good health, discouraging wastage ---- but I'd rather Walmart stayed out of India.