Why Companies See Bright Prospects in Rural India

Friday, June 19, 2009

In late May, when India’s GDP numbers were released, many were happily surprised. In the fourth quarter of the fiscal year (January-March 2009), the economy grew 5.8% against expectations of less than 5%. For the year, growth was 6.7%, less than the 9% recorded in 2007-2008, but still very respectable during a global downturn. Multinational banks and brokerage houses rushed back to their spreadsheets to raise their growth forecasts for 2009-2010.

But why were the estimates so pessimistic in the first place? A possible explanation is that most analysts work in cities, and their views are colored by what is happening around them and in the corporate world. That picture has been bleak: During the last quarter of 2008-2009, manufacturing shrank 1.4%. In contrast, agriculture grew 2.7%. The feel-good factor in urban India is returning only now with a new, stable government and a sharp jump in the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensitive Index (Sensex).

In the villages and small towns, it has been a very different picture. “The rural market is insulated from the global meltdown,” says Harish Bijoor, CEO of brand and business strategy consultants Harish Bijoor Consults. “The rural part of our economy has been untouched by credit cards and mortgages as known in the West.”

“The slowdown experienced by India on account of the IT (information technology), real estate, financial services and automobile sectors was an urban phenomenon,” says Ajay Gupta, founder and CEO of ruralnaukri.com, which focuses on jobs in the rural sector. (See “ruralnaukri.com’s Ajay Gupta: ’Rural Jobs Can Provide Momentum to the Wheel of the Economy’“). “However, the negative impact of all this on urban India has been more than offset by encouraging performance in rural areas. The rural economy has provided a cushion. Overall sentiment in the country was different from other parts of the world where each household had at least one person with a pink slip.”

“Several factors have led to an increase in rural purchasing power,” says Pankaj Gupta, practice head, consumer & retail, Tata Strategic Management Group. “The increase in procurement prices [the government sets the minimum support price — MSP — for many farm products] has contributed to a rise in rural demand. A series of good harvests on the back of several good monsoons boosted rural employment in agricultural and allied activities. Government schemes like NREGS [National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which guarantees 100 days of employment to one member of every rural household] reduced rural underemployment and raised wages. Also, farmers benefited from loan waivers [introduced in the last Union Budget]. The increase in rural purchasing power is reflected in rural growth across a number of categories. For example, in the financial year 2009 [April-March], FMCG [fast moving consumer goods] rural volume growth is estimated to be 5% to 12% higher than urban growth across a number of categories.”

A Short-lived Renaissance?
Some academics agree with these upbeat views of a rural resurgence. “Policy measures like the waiver of agricultural loans to the tune of US$13.9 billion and the NREGS have really put cheer into the rural economy,” says Devi Singh, director of the Indian institute of Management Lucknow (IIML). “The Bharat Nirman program with an outlay of US$34.84 billion for improving rural infrastructure is another step that has helped the rural economy. To some extent, the growth of organized retail can also be held responsible for the rural economy’s growth, as this has ensured that farmers get a better price for agricultural produce. The MSP set by the government has been rising further, fuelling rural growth by putting more money into the hands of the rural population.”

Singh adds a caveat, however. “While the statement that the Indian economy has been saved from the slowdown due to rural growth is true to a certain extent, this is not the only factor,” he says. “India’s growth has been fuelled more by domestic demand than exports. Also Indian spending and saving habits differ from other parts of the world. Indians by their very nature always save for their future and this holds them in good stead during times of crisis. The Indian buyer is more finance conscious than his global peer. The Indian banking system, due to the so-called non-reforms, is actually more resilient and the level of delinquencies is far lower than in other parts of the world.”

Some observers are skeptical about the durability of rural demand. “There is a worrying groundswell of optimism that rural consumers will come to the rescue of an Indian economy which is in the midst of a sharp slowdown. This optimism may be misplaced,” suggest consumer behavior expert Rama Bijapurkar and Rajesh Shukla, a senior fellow at the National Council for Applied Economic Research. Writing in business daily Mint, they continue: “Hearing phrases such as ’rural renaissance’ or ’rural India to the rescue’ makes us nervous. Such talk bears overtones of the ’Great Indian Middle Class’ story of the 1990s, where we declared victory at least a decade before we should have.” Their question: How sustainable, stable and volatility-free is the growth in income and consumption?

Bijapurkar and Shukla note that “periodically, India has seen a consumption spurt because of a one-time burst of a combination of events. This recent spurt seems no different. Over the past four years, the monsoon has been good; the support prices for crops have grown at 10% to 15% CAGR [compounded annual growth rate] in 2005-2008 compared with 2.5% to 4% in 2002-2005. In addition to a healthy flow of farm credit, there has been a one-time loan write-off of US$13.9 billion as well as a sizeable cash outlay from the NREGS. This doesn’t show intrinsic growth in rural India: This growth is, instead, owing to a combination of acts of God and acts of government. What we must never do is make the same mistake with rural India that Western multinationals make with India as a whole — assume that it will evolve the same way with a 10-year lag. The rural Indian market and consumer call for sophisticated new marketing strategies and paradigms, not a transplant of old ideas.”

Source: Knowledge@Wharton (link opens in a new window)