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Gaon goes global
Hindustan Times - 20 Jan 2007

The village buys a slice of urban life

It crops up between stretches of freshly sown wheat and gram. A steely structure in the middle of the fecund farmlands of Madhya Pradesh's Sehore district — ITC's Chaupal Sagar, the first mall set up in rural India three Diwalis ago.

Inside, farmers and families push trolleys through aisles lined with wares promising an urban lifestyle. Ketchup, disinfectants, soft toys, CDs, birthday cards. The ladies' counter just started stocking sunglasses on customer feedback. DVD players and mobile handsets are hot sellers; the mall sells over 50 mobiles a month. "Everyone wants good life, not just city people," shrugs shopper Dilip Singh, a Mowada village farmer.

Singh is just one voice in a statistical upheaval that is set to transform rural India: its consumption, its society, its people. According to the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), in 2001-02, 109 out of every thousand rural households owned a motorcycle. By 2009-10, 251 of them will. Car ownership is expected to soar 119 per cent, although on a very low base. Fifty per cent of all BSNL connections are now rural. Adding up to make for the fact that the middle class is an idea whose time has come in rural India.

At Chaupal Sagar, microcosm of this vast change, staffers marvel at how buying etiquettes have refined. Initially, farmers would gawk from outside. Coaxed inside, no one dared touch anything. Over time, haggling was untaught. Now ITC has five Chaupal Sagars in MP, six in rural Maharashtra and UP. Six more are planned in MP by March. The pleasures of purchase have been tasted. At the Chaupal Sagar in Vidisha, Karan Raghuvanshi, a Chittoria farmer, plans ahead: "I'll buy a TV now, dish next, or I'll have to suffer Doordarshan!"

More than anything else perhaps, it's the increasing exposure to urban India through media images — and a continuously improving road network — that has homogenised aspirations in our cities and villages. At his Billori village home, farmer Bhavani Sharma serves guests chocolate biscuits and tea in ceramic mugs. Colour TV, DVD player, music system in place, Sharma checks his pocket for his mobile. All children, barring his eldest daughter, wear jeans and skirts. "I have girls to marry off, we shouldn't look like dehatis," he expounds.

A decade of good rains, easy financing, and reduced dependence on agriculture have strengthened the spending might of the rural middle class. The average Indian rural income is now about 66 per cent of the average urban income.

NCAER projects that by 2009-10, rural India will have about 50 million middle class households: which means 250 million ready for sophisticated consumption. Or even just plain consumption. In the Vidisha mall, farmer Rajender Singh helps his friend buy a mobile: "We don't need cells for work, but then everyone has one." At Sehore's mall, Sangeeta is "just looking around" and yet she's "treated the children to biscuits and ended up spending again."

Says octogenarian Dalip Singh from Kararia: "Children are burning money and still hassled. They've mobiles and bad connections, electronic items and power cuts." Yet, the forces of consumption have reached intimate spaces in the rural mindset. Ranjana, 20, travels out of her village, Lashkarpur, to "get her eyebrows done". Her chachi, Rama Rajput, 38, approves: "Neat eyebrows and sanitary napkins are about being clean."

Grumbles Dalip Singh: "The young are buying before they have money, they'll be repaying loans forever. It's all no good." This as a painted advertisement in the backdrop argues with Singh's logic: 'Admit your child to Student Career Convent School, Kararia.' Not everything on the rural middle class' shopping list has to do with the malls.