Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Traditions become businesses

The social transformation from a rural economy to a more developed economy is happening and happening fast. Each progressing year, the share of agriculture drops and the share of the service sector increases. A traditional family in India was usually dependent on agriculture with all the siblings involved in working on the same farm. Some generations later, as the siblings grew, holdings were fragmented and the plot of land no longer helped sustain the entire family. The family size came down from the earlier 5-10 children per household to about 5 per household. Parents, grandparents, assorted aunts and uncles who had nowhere else to go formed the core of a family.

As life expectancy increased, education and transportation became easily available, the number of children began to reduce, children began to migrate to the cities. Thus Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Calcutta were the hotbeds of migration. Similar patterns were observed in other places.

Most of the migrants brought along their own culture into the city. Thus, housewives continued to prepare food much the same way they did back in their villages, swept the front of their houses the same way they did in their villages and so on. With an abundance of fruits and vegetables, most households were self sufficient in areas other than foodgrain. They prepared their own pickles, papads and other snacks. Even oil was often derived from their own lands. In the cities for over a generation, summer times were a replica of the way they lived in the villages. Families got together to prepare papads, pickles and so on. Sometimes they did it in the cities, sometimes they went back to their villages as one big family, worked out of the village and got it back to the cities.

Traditional festivals like Diwali, meant that lots of preparations (sweets, salted items) had to be prepared at home. To buy these from a store was infra dig once upon a time.

One generation later with sons and daughters equally educated, smaller families and no ties back in the villages most of these traditions became business opportunities for individuals with the talent and risk taking ability. Sweet shops were an industry long ago. The mixture of spices used for cooking was traditionally made at home, that is a big booming industry these days. Papads, pickles were the next target. To find someone who makes their own pickles is a rarity in the cities. Diwali preparations which require a considerable investment of time were "outsourced" so to say. The next assault was on traditional food stuff like dosa, idli which requires rice to be soaked and ground. Ready made batter is now available in most places in India. The summers which were available for enjoyment back in the villages are now "summer camps".

As the social transformation takes place in India where the society slowly moves from rural to semi rural to urban, a lot more such industries will be seen blooming. Can you spot the next one?

6 comments:

NC said...

Very well written, these are indeed booming industries today and don't forget the Overseas market!!!. Big bucks, $'s to be made!!

Neelakantan said...

Right said. I think I will put in an update on the overseas market too sometime!

Bruce said...

I was in Bangalore last year (first time in India). I could easily see the transformation taking place. Things there reminded me of the USA of the 1950s. I spent lots of time talking about it with people. I've seen the same tradition-to-business transformation in the US over the decades. Some people are troubled by it. Younger people aren't. But the overall culture changes very slowly. People give up their ways, but the traditional values tends to stay. Keep the important things.

It doesn't make sense for a family to continue making pickle. It's far more efficient for only the best pickle methods to be used to make huge amounts and to distribute it worldwide. I can go down the street here in the US and buy mixed pickle from the local Indian market. I don't need to know how to make it.

Fifty years from now, the average middle class family will be living in India or China. India will become very wealthy. Some old skills will be lost; new ones gained. Don't forget the past, but don't cling to it.

Niti Bhan said...

I'd disagree with the following:

"It doesn't make sense for a family to continue making pickle. It's far more efficient for only the best pickle methods to be used to make huge amounts and to distribute it worldwide. I can go down the street here in the US and buy mixed pickle from the local Indian market. I don't need to know how to make it"

Naturally it makes sense from the point of view of efficiencies of scale, mass production, packaging and export, my argument would be against the "Baedekarization" of all pickle.

Tell me you don't remember the particular taste of your grandma's lime pickle, with the rock salt to be eaten with mathri and it will never reach the market because it isn't well known or common in it's method. (Swallows watering mouth)

I'd bet on niche branding in the salty/sweet snack market - going through the lifecycle of mass production, Haldiram's and back to the specialty stores - in the long term.

In the short, I'd love to see the spread of a decent dabba system outside of India.

Neelakantan said...

Talking of pickles, I agree that Baedekarisation is a bad idea, but in products like these, there will be many niche players who cater to different tastes (including local players who sell by the kilo).

Ditto for sweets. Haldirams may package its son papdi, but the local mithai waala would still be around.

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