January 4, 2011, 8:42 AM IST
Remarkable Climb for Self-Made Dalit Millionaire
By Tripti Lahiri
At a party on Sunday to celebrate Dalit entrepreneurship, Chandra Bhan
Prasad called out to the businessmen in dark suits who surrounded him:
"Who is going to buy a helicopter next year?" asked Mr. Prasad, a
Dalit writer who was one of the organizers of the shindig.
The person who pushed to the front of the crowd with hand raised was
wearing a black sequined sari and a heavy necklace of rubies ringed
Tripti Lahiri for The Wall Street Journal
Businesswoman Kalpana Saroj attended a party on Sunday to celebrate
Dalit entrepreneurship. Most people in the room agreed that Kamani
Tubes Chairman Kalpana Saroj, who said in a conversation later that
her assets total five billion rupees (about $112 million), was the
most successful entrepreneur there.
The gathering was held ahead of a Monday meeting between a Dalit
business chamber and the Planning Commission. People from the
community that falls at the bottom of the caste hierarchy say
liberalization has been good to them—giving them more opportunities to
use their smarts and skills to move ahead than socialist-era India and
its government jobs did. Perhaps no one epitomizes that movement quite
like Ms. Saroj.
"The main thing you need to know is this is a woman who is ninth-class
pass and who was earning two rupees a day," said her husband Samir
Saroj, who used to run a company that provided sand for construction
purposes, but now works for his wife.
Ms. Saroj described a remarkable journey from a place called Akola in
Maharashtra state to Mumbai in the mid-1980s, perhaps five years
before India liberalized its economy.
In Akola, she was married at 12 and dropped out of school at 14. The
marriage didn't work out. She also began working as a teenager, after
her father was suspended from his police officer job.
In Mumbai, at first she earned just two rupees a day (about .05 U.S.
cents) as a seamstress, though her earnings increased as she became
comfortable using a sewing machine. Later, with a bank loan, she ran a
In her life, as with many of India's newly rich, real estate provided
the big break.
In 1997, she bought a plot of land in the city that was going cheap
because the property had an obstinate tenant and faced possible legal
"I knew people," said Ms. Saroj, who had by then been in Mumbai over a
decade. "I thought I can get this done…I had a strength inside me."
Ms. Saroj says she followed the files that related to her building
from one government office to another until she sorted out the tenancy
issue. She eventually did put up a building on the site (she called it
Kohinoor Plaza, after the world's biggest diamond). Along the way she
says she faced threats from local mafia who weren't pleased to see
someone they saw as an interloper getting into the property business.
After her building plans were passed, a man came to her warning that a
contract for 500,000 rupees ($11,363) had been put on her head, and
that she had better get out of town, she said.
"Where you come from the land needs water to produce, here in Mumbai
the land wants blood," Ms. Saroj recalls the man telling her.
She went to the police station and reported the threat to the cops,
who rounded up the goons whose names she says she had managed to get
out of the man who told her about the contract.
"Then the matter got solved," she said.
She sold Kohinoor Plaza in 2000 and parlayed that money into other
land deals. Ms. Saroj says that because of that she got a reputation
as a woman who could help people in Mumbai solve complicated problems.
In 2006, she took over Kamani Tubes (she had previously been on its
board), a metal tubing factory that had 1.1 billion rupees of debts
and that faced liquidation. She says she expects the factory to clear
its debts over the next year. She also owns a sugar factory.
Ms. Saroj puts her success down to her persistence – she says she is
unwilling to believe she can't do something once she sets her mind to
"There are many roads," she said. "If one way doesn't work out I try
to think of another way. If that doesn't work, I think what's an
The millionaire now works out of Ballard estate, from offices around
the corner from those of India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, at
Along the way she paid for the weddings of a younger brother and
sister and gifted them an apartment each, sent her daughter to study
hotel management in London and her son to train as a pilot in Germany.
As for the helicopter, Ms. Saroj says she does indeed plan to buy one
this year, as well as a plane—but not for personal use (at least not
at first, she says). Pointing to the fact that her son had to go
overseas for training, she says she plans to set up a school for
pilots at a multi-billion dollar aviation hub being planned for the
district where she grew up, at an airport named after Dalit icon Dr.
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