During India ‘s misplaced years post-Independence, business and
commercial activity was treated as a ‘necessary evil’. Businessmen
were labelled as rapacious, self-interested people who needed
to be kept under strict control. And shopkeepers were possibly
among the lowest on the social ladder according to the economic
and governance pundits.
In the last 20 or so years, fortunately, that tide has turned
significantly – the role of business in economic and social
growth is publicly acknowledged. Inspiring leaders such as Narayana
Murthy of Infosys, Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti, and Ratan Tata
of Tata Group offer aspirational models for a new generation of
Yet, retail, for all the zillions of column centimetres and hours
of airtime that it gets, is still seen as a slightly dubious activity.
For most planners on the government side, it has been and remains
an afterthought. Often, a few poorly developed square feet are
allocated when a new community or urban development is being planned.
On the other end, a number of massive glitzy shopping malls are
being set up by real estate developers that have no correlation
to their surroundings and catchment.
To my mind, retail developments need to be seen as part of urban
infrastructure and also, more importantly, as part of the social
fabric of a town or city. Government at all levels, especially
state, district and municipal level, need to understand that the
presence of successful retail developments in their population
centres are an indication of the social and economic health of
A well-planned retail centre not only creates income for the local
population and the local government, but also provides a very
important socio-cultural platform for interaction between the
different segments of a community. The presence of successful
brands and retailers acts as an attractive beacon for other businesses,
small or large.
Internationally several examples exist – especially in Europe
– where after decades of suburban growth, town planners
are focussing on re-developing ‘inner cities’ with a mix
of large and small retailers, in environments that are shopper-friendly
in every way. They are rethinking public transport connectivity,
planning in pedestrian-only walkways, greening and sheltering,
effective lighting, open spaces, and cultural centres. And yet,
this mix would be incomplete without food and shopping.
Government bodies also need to realise that it is not productive
to simply hand off large chunks of land to private developers
to put up concrete-steel-and-glass blocks in the form of shopping
centres. One should be able to look back 30-40 years hence, and
say that the development added something positive and organic
to the urban landscape in that town or city and was truly beneficial
to the local population.
Visionary shopping malls like the Kapaliçarsi (“Covered
Market” or Grand
Bazaar) of Istanbul that was established in 1461, are obviously
few and far between. Bluewater near London in the United Kingdom
, and inner city developments on continental Europe offer more
contemporary examples. However, India ‘s own traditional markets,
at least until a few decades ago, also offer points of reference
I believe a rethink of the role of retail is highly overdue. If
urban planners in the government and private developers can work
together to plan and create more complete and ‘organic’
retail centres for the future, India ‘s urban centres will be
far healthier and dynamic places to live in.
(c) Devangshu Dutta, October 2007
– Devangshu Dutta is chief executive of Third Eyesight (website:
www.thirdeyesight.in), a leading specialist retail and consumer
products consulting firm. Third Eyesight works with brand and
market leaders from India and global markets through a variety
of strategy and operational projects.