In the 11 years that Walmart has operated in India, it's signally failed to build up its own business. That's not entirely the company's fault. In fact, it's a reminder that India remains, in some ways, as inhospitable to foreign businesses as the People's Republic of China.
For over a decade, successive Indian governments have denied permission to Walmart -- and peers such as Carrefour SA -- to open up their own stores. Foreign investors can enter into partnerships with local retailers -- Walmart had one with Bharti Enterprises Pvt. Ltd. -- but they can't control the consumer-facing end of the business, and their supply chains are subject to fearsome additional regulations. When foreign investment in supermarkets was finally permitted in 2012, for example, the previous government required any major, foreign-backed outlets to source 30 percent of the processed or manufactured goods they sold -- by value -- from tiny Indian enterprises worth less than $1 million apiece. The government also blocked companies such as Walmart from expanding into small-town India, restricting them to cities with populations over 1 million people.
It's no coincidence that Walmart closed its deal with Flipkart now. Its joint venture with Bharti went bad a few years ago. And, in January, the possibility of having its own stores seemed finally to have closed, after the government made it marginally easier for single-brand retailers such as Ikea Group to open up stores in India but left restrictions on multi-brand retailers untouched. Even the relatively investment-friendly administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be afraid of Walmart, possibly because the strongest political support for Modi's party has always come from small shopkeepers. Clearly, the company needed another strategy.
Walmart would've struggled to open its own e-commerce business as well, given that India doesn't permit foreign investment in online retailing. All you can set up are "marketplaces." So Amazon India can't hold any of its own stock, and Indians can't buy directly from Amazon. Instead, Amazon works in India like eBay, serving as a clearinghouse for other people's goods; it's forbidden from holding any inventory of its own. It can't even provide easy refunds.
Finally, the deal is a sad sign for Indian consumers and producers. If Walmart had $16 billion to invest in India, the money would've served Indian consumers better had it gone into stores that secured the supply chain for the basic goods, especially fresh produce, that are a big component of poorer Indians' consumption basket. Chronic under-investment in farm-to-table supply chains means that Indians otherwise have to deal with high and sharply fluctuating food prices. Farmers, too, would have gotten a better deal.
Instead, Indian bureaucrats remain too short-sighted, too statist and too distrustful of foreign companies to allow such a thing. So we'll have to settle for a distant second-best when it comes to Walmart's India operations. This deal isn't a sign that India's leapfrogging past big-box stores to some digital retail utopia. It's yet another indictment of Indian politicians' limited vision.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
Get Breaking news, live coverage, and Latest News from India and around the world on NDTV.com. Catch all the Live TV action on NDTV 24x7 and NDTV India. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram for latest news and live news updates.