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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Shopping malls: providing the clean and safe

During my last trip to India, a couple of months back, I was surprised to see that every shopping mall I went to, had a metal detector gate at the entrance surrounded by frail-drugged looking security guards. And I noticed that the detector never beeped even as women wearing layers of jewelry went through the gates. May be when it came to consumption, we don’t care if people with guns go in, as long as they spend some cash before blowing things up (anything worthwhile inside is comprehensively insured, people are abundant and perishable anyways). But this elaborate yet pointless security mechanism does one thing quite well, and that is to keep 75% of the population outside the mall’s premises: the people with incomes below that of the middle classes.

When you walk inside a shopping mall in India, there is a distinct homogeneity about the people you see. These malls, which appear to us as public places, are filled with only middle and upper middle class crowd. The only exceptions are the staff at the cash counters, the bag storage, and the store helpers in the hypermarts located inside these malls. It may come as a surprise why the poor are not to be seen in these malls when the hypermarts inside relentlessly lure customers with mega sales, big discounts, and the guarantee of being cheaper than anywhere else. So why don’t the poor go there for a better deal for things they consume as much as the middle class: vegetables and other groceries?

The fact is that malls are not public places and their managements reserve the right to show the exit to anyone. And as Malcolm Voyce writes in EPW, the malls through market research have arrived at the conclusion that “Middle class identity is linked with practices of “spatial purification” in which middle class ideals of purity and safety claim precedence over the needs of the working class and the poor”. Therefore, to cater to the middle classes, the malls implicitly espouse and seek to maintain their value proposition in providing a “clean” and “safe” environment, gated from harsh Indian realities outside. Of course, the management rarely resort to force for this purpose unless the person seeking entry to the mall looks “too poor”, and therefore “too unclean” and “too unsafe”. For the rest, the questioning stares from the staff and customers inside provides enough humiliation to bar him or her from coming again. Such a phenomenon is unique in India such that while low priced chains in USA like Wal-Mart are socially inclusive to a large extent, low priced and air-conditioned hypermarts in India are not.

A few words about the beggars, who are never seen inside these malls, which logically should appear as great places for them to seek alms. A unique marketing breakthrough was to stack up impulse goods near the cash counters to entice customers as they queue to pay up. Can we have regulations that force malls to allow beggars to ask for alms before or just after the cash counters? After all, they may hope to get some loose change returned by the cashier. But can the middle class, with their preference for the “clean” and “safe”, tolerate the presence of fellow human beings who lack the lure of impulse goods?

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