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 Indians.
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 their localities.
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 and inspiration.
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.