Where is India's largest shopping mall located

The overview - Journal for ecumenical encounters and international cooperation

In a class of its own

Consumption is changing India's society

by Urvashi Butalia

Growing up in Delhi, a normal day started with the early morning call of the vegetable seller. Cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, onions became the language of poetry and song as the vegetable sellers vied to sell their wares. Soon after, the milkman came, carrying jugs and a large ladle. I still remember how excited I was when I was allowed to go out for the first time with a bowl into which the milk was poured - fresh and frothy, still warm from the cows.

This was followed by a long line of vendors selling bread, fruit, repair work for ovens and pressure cookers, stringing work for necklaces, weaving work for cots, wickerwork for chairs. All of these people became friends because not only did they bring neighbors together to eat a ripe tomato or a bag of peanuts, but they also shared their stories and family life with us all.

Then came another development; With a lot of noise and excitement, a new structure called the Super Bazaar entered our lives. Like many other things at the time, it was a state-run business that offered a limited number of consumer goods under one roof. The vegetable vendor didn't go away, but the little grocery store around the corner, where most people bought their rice, flour, and lentils, now had competition. Super Bazaar offered seeds, oil, spices, soap, washing powder, dusters, brooms and a number of consumer goods such as clocks, radiators and much more at reasonable prices.

Great bazaar started with a shop in the center of town. It was always a bigger expedition to get there. Families rode the bus, stayed there all day, and then came back laden with household items. Soon opened Great bazaar Retail stores in other parts of the city. Conscious consumer behavior was hardly developed at that time, the expenses of Great bazaar were hideous, the packaging was even worse. But the prices were right. And then went Great bazaar after about twenty years the same path as many public sector institutions - he died a slow death.

Today everything is different. The vegetable sellers are still coming, and there are still many grocery stores in the neighborhood. But their days are numbered. A major industrialist has already started realizing his plan to open over 150 hypermarkets across the country. There are other major chains already, and with the rise in incomes of the Indian middle class, another phenomenon has emerged, the shopping mall. Until recently, most Indians would have had difficulty describing what a shopping mall is. Some may know such malls from their trips to other countries, but they were rare in India until 15 years ago.

Today they are ubiquitous and can be found in almost all cities. Each new one is bigger and shinier than the previous ones, and they vie with each other with the widest possible range to attract customers. A radio station in Delhi advertises a shopping center that spans a river: Cross River Mall is said to be the largest and best shopping mall in Asia. Another advertisement, which wants to surpass that, invites people to visit a shopping complex and proudly says: "Yes, dear listener, we are a complex and not a center." What distinguishes the two from each other is not explained in more detail.

Shopping malls have not only changed the urban scene in large parts of India, but also the behavior, forms of spending and lifestyles of city dwellers. For one thing, they are often so huge that everything else appears very small in sight. They consume a lot of energy because they need bright lighting all the time, not just as a source of light, but also to make them look attractive and attract customers. In most large cities, where the streets are jammed with more and more cars, shopping malls endanger traffic, cause traffic jams and a snail's pace. There is also a mall like this near my house in Delhi. On Sunday evenings - and many other evenings - I don't like to drive past it, because at certain times of the day this five-minute route becomes a nightmare.

In some ways that wouldn't be so bad if the goods in the shopping malls were cheaper than in retail stores. Actually, the prices should be lower because many shops are housed under one roof and so the fixed costs can be better distributed. But such an advantage does not yet exist in India, apart from a few grocery shopping centers. Because most of the shopping malls are in top locations. As a result, the rent is so high that only the finest shops can settle here permanently. And these have consistently high prices. The energy costs and the costs for a large number of security guards and for designer lighting and equipment are also not exactly low. In order to attract as many customers as possible, malls also have to spend money on packaging and presentation, which is also passed on to the customer.

The shopping mall thus becomes an expensive and often exclusive place. They are attractive places to the rich because of the number of designer shops and the exclusive goods that can only be found here. Those who shop in Mall X or Y are showing their social status. You are what you buy, where you shop and with whom you shop. That is why the special clientele arrives in elegant, sleek, chauffeur-driven cars, strolls around in designer clothes, buys in exclusive shops. You don't meet the mob there, you don't stand in line with cooks, gardeners and chimney sweeps. The same thing that is also available in a shop in a less chic part of the city can be bought in such a shopping mall for double the price, nicely wrapped up and brought to the car by a servant in livery. For the less well-off, the shopping malls become symbols of the status they are striving for: going to a mall becomes a method of announcing one's own social advancement or confirming that one is on the way up. You may not have the money to buy, but at least you can look and move in the presence of wealth.

In front of every shopping mall are numerous poor children and beggars who emphatically remind people that all the glitz in the world cannot eliminate the ugly realities of real life. The children who hang around in front of the malls and sometimes stare in amazement and awe at the goods on display are often the children of the poor, underpaid and exploited workers who built the shopping mall - because in India a lot of construction work is still done by hand. The place where they worked and where they camped, as long as it consisted only of walls and girders, is no longer accessible to them.

Where there used to be an extensive area of ​​fields and farms is now Gurgaon, a suburb of Dehli. The information technology (IT) center there houses a large number of call centers, IT factories and some of the largest shopping malls in the country. The main expressway that runs through this IT city and on which there are several shopping malls is also a thoroughfare that leads to Delhi. Those who drive from Rajasthan to Delhi, for example, sometimes need more time for this section, which is crammed with cars driving to the shopping malls, than for the rest of the journey. Traffic jams are annoying and irritable nerves lead to street collisions, and what began as a shopping spree or family outing with dinner at a new restaurant in a mall can sometimes end in ugly outbursts of violence and anger. It is difficult to say whether the centers are bringing this about or whether it is up to the people concerned.

If Gurgaon is a city of shopping malls today, street fever isn't the only price it has to pay. Because the architecture of most of the shopping centers in India is completely inadequate for the country's climate. In a country where summer temperatures can sometimes rise as high as 48 or 50 degrees, you couldn't be in an enclosed structure if it wasn't air-conditioned. The shopping malls are also a magnet for many Indians because they are cool in summer and warm in winter. This requires a lot of energy and there is a power shortage in most Indian cities. This leads to frequent power outages, breakdowns and blackouts, especially in summer when the demand for electricity is greatest. That is why the shopping malls have their own generators, large structures that damage the environment through both noise and fumes.

Consumer frenzy, open display of prosperity, traffic jams, waste of energy, environmental pollution, increasing noise levels - do the malls have anything positive to offer? In some ways, the shopping mall is the perfect symbol of the aspirations of a rising middle class. It helps people to pursue a lifestyle that is then supported by concentrated advertising in electronic media, glossy magazines from movie stars and other celebrities.

The success of the shopping malls also has to do with the rapid growth of the plastic money culture. Until recently, the country was only used to pay with cash, but plastic money is now widespread in India. While India used to suffer from a lack of foreign currency, it now has high foreign exchange reserves. This means that Indians can now use international credit cards. Gone are the days when they were only allowed $ 500 in cash every other year for overseas travel. And if you use plastic money, the annoying feeling of spending money is less of a problem. This also makes shopping in a shopping mall easier. In the corner shop you need cash, in the mall you only need a plastic card with credit.

The expansion of shopping malls has another positive effect, especially for urban youth in India: It has opened up new spaces where people can come together and spend time together. In a society that is by and large not permissive, a shopping mall is a relatively "safe" meeting place for young men and women or people of the same sex. It is a public place and yet anonymous, has restaurants and cinemas, but no really dark corners. Parents who would worry if their children were "hanging around" on the street are relatively relaxed when the children go to a shopping mall. And in the long run this could mean the beginning of new forms of socialization for young Indians.

Add to this the new type of restaurants, fast food places and elegant shops that are emerging in the shopping malls, which have created new employment opportunities for young people, especially girls. In the past, the job as a saleswoman would not have been right for a young woman, especially because all kinds of customers come to traditional shops. But shopping centers are different, access to them, even if it is supposedly public, is monitored very carefully. Nobody dressed in rags can enter a mall. There is thus a class barrier associated with the - often incorrect - assumption that people of a certain social class do not pose any danger. Many parents who would have opposed their daughters' employment in a simple shop in the past would be happy to see them now for Chanel or an exclusive watch shop or even just Pizza Hut or MC Donalds work. In this way, shopping malls have opened up a whole new world for young members of the middle and lower middle classes to be able to move outside the four walls of their home and to acquire a certain economic independence.

Change is often difficult. Entry into the global world was not easy for India, a society which, after independence, chose a path of self-reliance. There was a time when Indians took pride in being one of the few countries in the world who did Coke thrown out and made their own brands of cold drinks, which were very popular. There used to be none in India MC Donalds and Pizza Huts and no shopping malls.

However, all of this is now almost a matter of course and will remain so. And since many of these innovations prove to be indispensable, it is all the more difficult to talk about their negative sides.

from: the overview 03/2007, page 76


Urvashi Butalia

Urvashi Butalia is a publisher and writer based in Delhi.
Her book "The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India", Duke University Press, Durham, USA, has won several awards.