The Dalits

Manu Who?

Dalit businessmen are taking baby steps, in spite of small-town malice
and the walls around India Inc. The fortress is breached.
Lola Nayar
“People don’t care about caste anymore. Perhaps being academically and
financially better off helped me,” says 29-year-old Mahesh Kamble, one
of the promoters of Mumbai’s L.N. College of  Management and
Technology. An IIM-K graduate who turned entrepreneur with friends
seven years ago, Mahesh says, “In 99 per cent cases, caste is no
issue. Maybe at corporate gatherings one or two questions are asked
but I have never faced an adverse situation because of my background.”

A slightly different picture emerges in speaking to Mukund Kamalakar,
who runs Suryatech Solar Systems, a flourishing business of solar
water heaters. “A small percentage of clients, well-off upper-caste
people, delay their decision once they come to know my I
prefer to keep quiet about it,” he says.

Photograph by Yusuf Khan

“I know the difficulties of an entrepreneur...I now plan to give
financial and tech help to others from my community.” Mukund
Kamalakar, Founder, Suryatech Solar
When Mukund (who changed his surname from Kamble) quit a secure
government job to turn entrepreneur in 1999, he didn’t tell anyone at
home for a full three months. Today, the economics PG is happy he took
the risk to venture into a field far, far away from his traditional
family occupation, that of a cobbler. Having installed 4,500
solar-water heating systems, his firm currently has a turnover of Rs.
1.5 crore.

It’s hardly surprising that there are many shades of grey in the India
growth story. After over 60 years of independence, the gulf between
the haves and have-nots still runs wide. And barring some rays of
light, this socio-economic divide continues to work to the detriment
of marginalised communities like Dalits. This particularly applies to
India’s villages, where the Dalits—who officially make up some 17 per
cent of the population—are largely landless labourers. Has the high
economic growth of the last two decades brought no benefits to the
marginalised? More importantly, is the government mantra of inclusive
growth bringing no social mobility?

Understandably, there are differences of opinion here. Planning
Commission member Narendra Jadhav, for one, believes that economic
reforms have proved to be both a challenge and an opening up of new
vistas for some of the most backward of communities. “There is a
silent revolution taking place. From painting and sculpture to
neurosurgery, in every sphere of economic activity you will find a
Dalit making his or her place in society,” says Jadhav.

For triggers, he points to the government decision to reduce and even
freeze recruitments in state-run institutions in the ’90s, which
forced many educated Dalits to look beyond their preferred secure
employment avenue. The dismantling of the licence raj also opened the
door for many prospective entrepreneurs. “A lot of talent which was
suppressed has suddenly blossomed with opportunity, and this is with
or without education. Those traditionally on the outskirts of the
village are now in the mainstream,” stresses Jadhav.

Alas, tellingly, there is as yet no authentic data available on the
number of enterprises owned by Dalits. At last count, the Dalit Indian
Chamber of Commerce and Industry (based in Pune) had over 400
enterprises on the rolls, in sectors like construction, engineering
and manufacturing as well as specialisations like offshore platform

 When it comes to India Inc, despite the promises of affirmative
action little has happened on the ground.

Set up in 2005, the chamber fulfils the need to bring Dalits together
on a common platform for sharing experiences and leveraging strengths
“as till then we had not been approached or entertained by any other
business forum”, says Milind Kamble, chairman of DICCI. He admits that
“we are still on the fringes despite having proved our capabilities”.
Today, though, some of the other chambers are extending DICCI a
helping hand with various events. DICCI now has plans to set up
regional arms to cater to its scores of members from outside
Maharashtra. And though it may not compare to the bigger chambers,
DICCI does have some impressive patrons. Ranging from those with a
minimum Rs 25 lakh turnover, the majority of the Dalit chamber members
have annual turnovers of over Rs 100 crore. A few are in the big
league with over Rs 500 crore worth of annual business. Kamble himself
heads two firms, a construction company and one that does turnkey
infrastructure projects—with a combined turnover of Rs 70 crore.

The fact that Dalit entrepreneurs are growing in number is
substantiated by Dalit writer and researcher Chandra Bhan Prasad who’s
working on a study on Dalit enterprises for the Centre for Advanced
Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. “We are profiling Dalits
with over Rs 1 crore turnover. We will soon be raising the bar to over
Rs 10-crore turnover...the list is too big below that,” he says.
Chandra’s data has mostly first-generation entrepreneurs who set up
shop in the ’90s. After an initial struggle, these companies are
finding unlimited opportunities to not just grow within the country
but also expand overseas. “Today, Dalits say people are more worried
about money than caste because competition is severe,” he says.

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

“Once you cross the crore boundary, attitudes change...poverty and
caste end up having no meaning.” Khade Ashok, Director, Das Offshore
Born in a poor Dalit family in Sangli, Maharashtra, 55-year-old K.
Ashok says family support, hard work and the loyalty of his workforce
helped build the Rs 130-crore company. With 4,500 employees, Ashok’s
firm, which erects deep-sea platforms and pipelines, has Rs 550-crore
worth of orders in hand.

But for all the successes, there are many parts of the country where
caste barriers continue to be a wall. A survey of Dalit entrepreneurs
in urban centres of Haryana and Punjab by JNU’s Prof Surinder S.
Jodhka shows that invariably Dalits lack economic resources. Sometimes
despite having economic resources, they are crippled by lack of social
resources. “Business works through cartels and they are mostly formed
on caste and kinship lines. This is particularly true about
small-scale businesses/industries in small towns. These cartels are
invariable controlled by the traditionally dominant business caste
groups of the region,” says Jodhka, a former director of the Indian
Institute of Dalit Studies.

If there is change happening, one of the pointers is the slow
disintegration of the village social order in some parts of the
country where Dalits are seeking education for upward mobility. (The
literacy level among SCs has gone up from 10.27 per cent in 1961 to
nearly 55 per cent in 2001). The number of Dalits pursuing higher
education has also been increasing steadily. This is clearly evident
in government jobs, where though their overall share has remained
steady at 17 per cent, they now occupy more positions in higher
categories of jobs.

However, when it comes to corporate India, there is consensus among
experts that despite business houses and lobbies promising affirmative
action, not much has happened on the ground. “Social mobility in the
private sector is still minimal. Voluntary affirmative action has not
happened. In terms of jobs too, discrimination persists. In addition,
hemmed in by labour laws (which don’t favour hiring and firing) and
the Scheduled Caste Commission, sme entrepreneurs too are wary of
employing Dalits,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy

Clearly, there has been improvement in the material existence of
Dalits. But mobility is still at a nascent stage, and the glass
ceiling at the higher echelons endures. The fact that “the image of
Dalits is changing from Gandhi’s Harijan to a more assertive,
politically aware, rights-oriented individual who is not scared to
demand or move to a diverse range of occupations”, as Jodhka puts it,
gives room for hope. The question now is, is corporate India ready for


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