Economic boom proves a boon for the lowest of India's caste system
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post / April 21, 2011
MUMBAI — Ashok Khade heads a flourishing $32 million construction
business in India's commercial capital, Mumbai. He employs 4,500
people, is building a dockyard for his company, drives a gray BMW, and
wants to buy a helicopter next year.
The success of the 56-year-old Khade, a first-generation entrepreneur,
is remarkable because he is a member of India's Dalit caste, once
known as untouchables in Hinduism's rigid social hierarchy.
As a young boy, he lived the life of these "broken people,'' facing
crippling poverty and discrimination. He was not allowed to draw water
from the village well, could not enter the temple and was forced to
attend school in segregated classrooms.
But more than six decades of education programs and affirmative-action
policies, coupled with India's recent economic expansion, have begun
to break the occupational ceiling that the ancient caste system
imposed on Dalits. There is now a robust Dalit middle class of
doctors, engineers, lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians, and a
growing number of business owners such as Khade.
"In the world of business, success matters more than caste,'' Khade said.
Khade started working as a technician in a Mumbai shipping yard in
1979 and studied engineering in the evenings. He quit his job in 1992
and used the salary from his last two months to start Das Offshore
Engineering, designing and building unmanned offshore platforms for
With their newfound economic clout, Dalit millionaires such as Khade
are working to lower barriers and prejudice in their villages, funding
grants for Dalit students, building schools and roads, and employing
people of all castes in their businesses. They are also trying to
showcase their success, hoping they will become role models for young
Dalits and help them move beyond the dominant images of discrimination
"This is a proud moment, and we want to celebrate the success
stories,'' said Milind Kamble, 44, chairman of the Dalit Indian
Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "For too long, we have shouted angry
slogans on the streets.''
Kamble started out as a teenage activist with the Dalit Panther group,
which was inspired by the Black Panther movement in the United States.
Today, encouraged by the rise of African-American entrepreneurs, he
devours the American magazine Black Enterprise cover to cover.
His business group has 1,000 members, but that number is likely to
double when registration begins in 10 more states across India in
October. The chamber is also setting up a venture capital fund to
encourage new entrepreneurs.
Many see a growing class of Dalit business owners as an important next
step in the community's transformation.
Not everyone is hailing the attention focused on Dalit millionaires.
Some Dalits view the successful business owners as members of an elite
club who have jettisoned the long fight on the ground against violence
"Maybe 10 percent of Dalits are doing well, but what about the rest
who are rotting in poverty in villages and city slums? Can they relate
to this campaign about wealthy Dalits?'' said Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit
activist and author. "It is an illusion that they can be role models.'
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