US giant Walmart said on Friday it aims to open its first store in India within the next 12-18 months after the government opened the vast consumer market to foreign chains.

"That is the plan -- to open (stores) in 12 to 18 months," a Walmart spokesman told AFP, declining to disclose how many stores it might open or other details.

Up to now, foreign groups such as Walmart could only operate as wholesalers amid fears that big Western retail chains could swamp small family-run stores that dominate the sector.

The government signed into law a decision late Thursday to allow foreign multibrand retailers to set up shop in India via joint ventures as it moved to further open up the economy and kickstart sharply slowing growth.

US-based Walmart and French supermarket Carrefour, the world's second largest retailer, and others had been lobbying India's government to open the the country of 1.2 billion people to foreign store chains.

In a bid to prepare the terrain for a potential move into India's retail sector, Walmart entered the wholesale retail supply chain in 2009 in an alliance with Bharti Enterprises, parent of India's top mobile firm Bharti Airtel.

The joint venture, which has nearly 17 cash and carry stores, sells mainly to vegetable vendors, hospitals, restaurants and other firms.

Carrefour, which was reported by Indian media in July to have put on hold an expansion plan for wholesale stores in the country, declined to comment on the government's new step to liberalise the retail sector.

Carrefour opened its first cash-and-carry store in India in 2010 and now has two, catering to food firms, restaurants and retailers.

Earlier this year, India allowed foreign retailers selling one brand to operate stores and Sweden's IKEA is awaiting approval of its plans to open outlets in the country as it seeks new markets for its flat-pack furnishings.