New millionaires hope to serve as role models for India's lower castes
By Rama Lakshmi, Thursday, April 14, 7:53 PM
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.
A first-generation entrepreneur, 56-year-old Khade's success 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
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."
Getting in on the boom
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.
"If Dalits don't see themselves in the list of the rich Indians, then
the signal is that India is booming but Dalits are not invited to the
party," said Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced
Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, which is conducting
a survey of successful Dalit entrepreneurs.
So far, the research has found that Dalits are well represented in the
manufacturing sector, producing cement pipes, copper tubes, automobile
components, solar heaters and frozen food, as well as ethanol, and
even high-rise buildings.
"We did not know so many Dalit capitalists existed," Kamble said. "We
are stumbling upon new millionaires everyday."
What money can't buy
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."
"We faced hardship, discrimination, insults," said Devanand Londhe,
37, owner of Payod Industries, which makes and exports industrial
cotton gloves to Japan. He recalls being turned away from an
upper-caste wedding feast in his village when he was 12.
But he studied in government-run schools and colleges, where tuition
was subsidized for Dalits. His parents toiled in farms and saved money
for his textbooks. He donned his first pair of shoes at 19. Later,
when Londhe became a civil engineer, the village sugar factory refused
him a job.
"That day I pledged that I will return to the village as a job giver,
not as a job seeker," Londhe recalled. He went to the city to work in
water management firms, and later to Afghanistan to work on U.S.
infrastructure projects. In 2007, he returned to the village with his
savings and set up a factory. It employs more than 200 villagers, from
The emerging class of Dalit millionaires is embracing other symbols of
success as well: a dress code of black suits and red ties, E-class
Mercedes-Benzes and huge homes with terraced gardens in posh
upper-caste neighborhoods. Some are taking lessons in English diction
and table manners, too.
But even successful Dalits have learned that there are limits to what
money can buy.
Four years ago, Khade spent thousands of dollars to repair the old
village well and temple, and opened a new school.
"I have bought 100 acres of farmland. I built a palace in the Dalit
quarters of the village for my mother," Khade said. "But I still
cannot build a house in the heart of the village, where the upper
castes live. They won't sell that land to a Dalit. That will take
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