January 3, 2011, 2:03 PM IST
Dalit Millionaires Hold Biz Meet
By Tripti Lahiri
At a dinner Sunday night for Dalit entrepreneurs, Montek Singh
Ahluwalia—the man who sets India's spending priorities in its
five-year plans—looked on benignly as Dalit businessmen (and at least
one businesswoman) were called forward by name to meet him.
He asked one young man, Harsh Bhasker, who runs a coaching institute
in Agra that preps students for engineering and medical college exams,
what his institute's success rate was.
Planning Commission deputy chair Montek Singh Ahluwalia, left,
businesswoman Kalpana Saroj, center, and activist Chandra Bhan Prasad,
right, attended a party to celebrate Dalit entrepreneurs.
He asked Sanjay Kshirsagar, who makes audio equipment but is also
involved in real estate development, about a slum renewal project he's
working on in Mumbai.
He then crowned two businessmen with tinsel crowns, including one who
was billed as "the youngest CEO" at the gathering although the young
man in question was quick to clarify that actually he heads a
"This definitely shows that with the new economic policies, which have
led to new opportunities, there are social changes taking place that
are not negative for Dalits," said Mr. Ahluwalia.
The people at the gathering agreed, praising India's economic
liberalization and globalization for giving them new opportunities.
Historically Dalits fall at the bottom of India's caste totem pole,
and were confined to hereditary jobs considered menial or dirty by
other caste groups.
"These are products of after globalization," said Milind Kamble, who
runs a construction firm. In 2005, he started a business forum for
Dalit entrepreneurs like himself. "In the open market everybody can
enter provided he has competency."
The dinner Sunday was organized by Mr. Kamble and activist and writer
Chandra Bhan Prasad.
On Monday afternoon, the group of Dalit entrepreneurs—the Dalit Indian
Chamber of Commerce & Industries—is set to visit Mr. Ahluwalia at his
office. Folks at the gathering Sunday night said this was the first
time a Dalit business forum was meeting formally with a government
official ahead of the budget in February, and that they intended to
ask for help—though not quotas for employment in private sector firms,
they were quick to add.
"I expect to have a very full interaction with them," said Mr.
Ahluwalia, adding that he planned to ask them what government policies
they had found beneficial. The commission will soon be beginning work
on its next five-year plan.
The planning official said he wanted to know: "What was it government
did when they were younger, which they now find was really crucial?"
The entrepreneurs at the gathering, many of whom seemed to hail from
families that were already educated or in some way ahead of many
others in the community, said one of the big challenges for Indian
business—financing—is even harder for them.
"We are from a community where we don't have any assets and we are
first-generation businessmen," said Mr. Kamble, who started the
chamber in 2005. Mr. Kamble's father was a primary school teacher but
the 43-year-old said that he saw the earnings in a job like that as
too limited. He carried out the construction work on his first
contract by borrowing money from friends.
Just as Dalit political organizers have done in the past (there was
once a Dalit Panthers organization, named after the Black Panthers),
Dalit businessmen look to the African-American civil rights movement
"The black man in the White House…this did not happen overnight," said
Mr. Kamble as the evening drew to a close. "It is the result of 40
years of struggle."
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