On Sunday at 6 pm, we bravely ventured out to Dolmen Mall, the city's latest mega indoor malls. It is the sixth of its kind in the Saddar-Defence corridor. The others include Park Towers, Emerald Towers, Forum, the Atrium, the under construction Sofitel, a multi-story elite hotel that replaces Mideast Hospital.
The entrance at Dolmen was crowded. Karachites were out to make the most of a disappearing holiday. There were about thirty people on the escalator ramp leading up to the shops. We got on only to realize that there were also about 10 to 12 shopping trolleys being hauled up by a Hyperstar Employee. Seconds later, there were shrill screams of terror. A wheelchair was stuck at the top of the moving ramp. No one stopped it. The number of people on the ramp kept increasing as they ascended. But the exit from the ramp was blocked by a wheelchair, a group of people, and a string of trolleys. The security guard stood by or assisted --I couldn't see -- but in a flash, the true nature of our predicament dawned upon me. We were headed for a massive human squash. My son was already jammed between our legs and the trolley. Panic stricken, I asked my partner to pick him up and hold him high so he would not be hurt.
Seconds later, the wheelchair was pushed off. People moved. A disaster was averted. However, there were many shattered nerves, and a palpable sense of anxiety in the air. The Hyperstar employee guiltily slid away with his trolleys. Two middle aged men launched vicious verbal assaults on the guard. "Button bandh kyun nahin kiya?" The rudeness was typical of upper and middle class entitlement to displays of anger and superiority. The guard --gaunt, sheepish -- had no answer. If not underpaid, he was thoroughly under trained, and probably afraid of being chastised by the bosses, and humiliated. People dissipated. The numerous employees at the entrance continued to check and search bags and hustle would be terrorists, but pliant buyers, through metal detectors.
Had this incident resulted in injuries, Hyperstar and Dolmen Mall would be liable to pay damages for negligence. For one, the Hyperstar employee should not have been on the ramp with a dozen trolleys at peak hour. He should have used a freight elevator. Without adequate training, he was put in a position where he could have placed others at risk of personal injury. Hyper would be vicariously liable. He was negligent under their watch, and due to their lack of instruction.
Second, the Dolmen Mall guard should have pressed the emergency stop button. His negligent response to an emergency situation again represents lack of adequate training by mall owners. The mall would also be liable for lack of provision of separate transport facilities for shopping trolleys.
Large food retail stores -- Carrefour (French), Makro (Belgian), Metro (German)-- have made a dent in the retail sector in Pakistan. They comprise about 2% of all Pakistani food retail outlets with an estimated annual turnover of $176 million. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.(1)
Families are welcome; but you may get trampled.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) paints a chilling picture of our march to the slaughterhouse of hyper consumerism - our profile as ready, willing, available consumers for the foreign large retailer seeking higher profits.
"The upcoming changes in the Pakistani consumer demographic will create opportunities and challenges for companies. Pakistan has a population of over 170 million...with a large and growing consumer middle income class estimated at about 25% of the total population....A growing number of young Pakistani professionals generally prefer making monthly food purchases from modern retail stores due to greater variety of products, satellite stores, and to enjoy food services all under one roof, thus providing the opportunity of combining one stop shopping with a family outing."
Larger retailers are here to make money, repatriate profits, appropriate the market from local, traditional retailers, get people to switch from organic food to processed foods. They are aware of the psychology of a new generation willing to dispose income for plastic, seeking convenience, unperturbed by superfluous packaging. The stores are not obligated to reinvest in Pakistan. In the service and infrastructure sectors, the government permits foreign investors 100% repatriation of equity - which serves as a huge economic incentive.(2)
So having larger foreign retailers may seem hip, but its not development for the masses. It may provide employment, but that fades in comparison to the value they extract and put back in their home countries.
I once asked a Hyperstar employee whether he was paid okay. He got flustered, and glanced over his shoulder, and this is right after he did "sales talk" with me about Hyperstar's great discounts. It is doubtful that foreign companies are committed to labor laws; in fact they are here because labor is not effectively unionized or empowered, can be hired cheaply (the cost of one day's groceries for some), and will not bargain in fear of reprisal. It is doubtful they are committed to the same rigorous standards, as abroad, of reasonable care in the running of their operations. This was apparent from the negligence on the ramp. No Hyperstar staff member showed up to inquire about the episode and collect first hand accounts. I filed a complaint, left my cell number, but did not receive a phone call. Store attendants were curious in a voyeuristic way, but lacked technical know how on handling complaints. One sales clerk casually ignored my six year old as she waited to get spinach weighed while catering to grown men who cut the line. Whatever excellence they are committed to -- was not evident that day -- just their ruthless desire for the money.
A website lists complains the Metro store in Karachi does not allow children under ten years of age with their mother inside the store.(3) If true, or once true, this violates the right to family life and privacy which would be guaranteed in Europe under human rights and laws protecting children. But here we are -- oblivious, prostituted without legal cover, dispensable.
But please carry cash, not your children; they may damage our products
Dismally, we are a consumer market to be exploited, but not worthy of legal protections, and sufficiently mistrusted in light of prohibitions and security checks. (You can not walk around with a coffee cup in the Dolmen mall.) Tort litigation, consumer and rights awareness is not widespread or even common knowledge in Pakistan. Without judicial vigilance at the first instance courts, regular people will remain without a remedy against giant foreign retailers who are represented by top notch law firms in tort cases. Traditional grocery stores risk losing business and becoming defunct. Customer relations of the mohallah type, casual and autonomous, would be likely replaced whole scale by the cold cordiality of hyper chain stores. I asked the men working in the fish department at Hyperstar if they could sell me edible remains for my cat. When he looked confounded, a nice lady whispered to me making me feel bag ladyish. "They probably do not have the permission."
In lip service to corporate social responsibility, the companies appease the public with tokenist charity, glam events, and support of the arts in the form of, for example, Coke Studio, causing social liberals (read fiscal conservatives) to be giddy over the patronage of the arts and suspend their economic critique - settle for the argument, at least some people have jobs. Its more than you can do.
While the justice system is not accessible to the common person, it highly favorable to foreign investors. Under the Protection of Economic Reforms Act, 1992 privatized commercial and industrial enterprises and foreign investments are protected from compulsory taking by the government. (4)
In certain sectors, the Sindh Investment Board offers incentives to foreign companies - which appear ultra vires ---"availability of affordable labour, skilled work force...an Expatriate Enclave with modern infrastructure and tax incentive package such as exemption of custom duties and Taxes strictly on import of capital equipment." (5)
Special economic zones (SEZs) such as these should be challenged -- such broad powers exercised by the Board, to impose such status on 2, 000 acres of prime Karachi land (to the detriment of workers) should be subject to judicial and parliamentary scrutiny -- but is it? Do we have that sort of community mobilization and legal vigilance to push it?
In a mad scramble of a neon nature, we dole out piece by piece what is left of our resources -- providing incentives to companies to explore Thar Coal, build LNG terminals, create hyper marts, SEZs -- at the peril of local indigenous communities in the Thar desert, in the Sindh mahigir population, small stores, and labor.
In December 2009, the Supreme Court ordered that the federal government acting at Musharaf's behest had no authority to grant leasehold rights to the Army Welfare Trust (AWT) which later sub-leased the land to Makro-Habib Pakistan to build a cash and carry wholesale outlet. It ordered the retail giant to vacate the 4.9 acres of land within three months. The plot is an amenity plot and should be used as a playground.(6) The three months would have expired about March 20, 2010. Makro still stands. Surely, they wiggled their way out.
Hey, wasn't there supposed to be a playground here - like two years ago?
During martial law another financial fiasco was the sale of PTCL to the Dubai-based Etisalat. The transaction was fraught with problems and debunks the myth that state owned companies are necessarily less efficient and competent than private ones. (7)
In Pakistan, we suffer the double disability of military business collusion - the ugly marriage of army generals and Citibank executives. No one to bail us out, but for the lonely suo motu.
Hyper stores are good fun for my kids and me. Its broad glossy aisles, clean counters, provide an outing, yes, to the Karachi child. Paradise Store, our local grocery store gives me the feeling we paid an extra thousand for nothing. Due to lack of legal control, the local small grocery store can also get away with selling unsafe products, overcharge - they feel not like the fuzzy mom and pop (kiryana) stores, but mini sharks riding inflation. I do not have the fortitude of character to drag and protect my kids through Delhi Colony - been dragged and suffered through that in my own child hood, got my behind pinched.
Clearly, better options, like the affordable Imtiaz Store (but not quite as cramped or distant) need to be available for the consumer - perhaps even child friendly, cooperative owned grocery stores that provide fair wage employment to its employees, encourage the sale of safe, organic goods and local products rather than overly processed products laced with preservatives.
Ultimately there needs to be an economic rejection of the hypermart phenomenon. Change is good, but not when it gouges out profit. Neighborhoods in the US resist encroachments by Walmart; And in one case, in San Jose, unionized grocery workers (ironically) at large chains such as Safeway and Luckys are resisting Walmart. Walmart, Carrefour, and Tesco are the the three biggest retailers spreading their wings. (8)
Why can't we at least make it hard for them. Trim some feathers. We can at least not celebrate when Walmart, Ikea, and Starbucks come to Pakistan. Its would be easy to rile up people saying these stores are somehow unIslamic - but that would be unethical, and would fuel that unnecessary liberal-fundamentalist debate in social media -- that often ignores the economics -- and places social liberals (economic conservatives) in the position of necessarily, but falsely, defending foreign enterprise as modernization when juxtaposed against fundamentalist angst that falsely purports to defend the lower middle class.
Why can't we call out the government on the shameful laws that provide broad and unjust protections to foreign investments and privatization, strengthen the anti privatization movement at the grassroots with more diverse and passionate adherents, especially amongst the youth.
Of course, such campaigns should seek to collaborate and bring together information of illicit land transfers by the military or others to build large retail stores or for agriculture. There should be a renewed focus on Environmental Impact Assessments. Direct action and stalling tactics can be used, lawfully, to stop the proliferation of large stores, and bad projects by attending administrative hearings where they present EIA reports as a formality and minor hurdle. The public could challenge the environmental and social feasibility of projects -- give teeth to the process.
Even if nine out of ten people will tell you this bastard development is inevitable, and you yourself are being hypocritical, cooperatives are a dream -- its Karachi, its Pakistan, change is always in the air.
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