Saturday, April 23, 2011

[ZESTCaste] The Other Temple Entry - Thirty Dalit businessmen have defied odds and caste prejudice to become billionaires in their own right

dalit crorepatis
The Other Temple Entry
Thirty Dalit businessmen have defied odds and caste prejudice to
become billionaires in their own right
Anuradha Raman

"I weep when I cruise past my village in my BMW. My chauffeur thinks
I'm crazy when I ask him to stop the car by a huge tree. I get out and
rest in its shade. I give it a hug and even talk to it."

—Ashok Khade, chairman, Das Offshore Pvt Ltd, Mumbai

The tree Khade stops by falls on the way to his village Ped in Sangli
district in Maharashtra, and is the very place where his father made a
living as a cobbler. Young Khade's caste marked him out for
exclusion—from the village ground, the well, its water, the
temple—almost everything. Education held the lone hope in this dark
abyss, and Khade clutched firmly at this straw, sweating it out at the
Mazgaon docks during the day and studying for a diploma in mechanical
engineering at night. It wasn't easy; there were times when he had to
live under staircases because he could not afford to pay the rent. But
determination and hard work eventually paid off. Today, Khade presides
over a business empire that is worth Rs 550 crore and has a workforce
of 4,500 people. Das Offshore undertakes construction assignments for
offshore rigs, and also builds skywalks or foot overbridges.

Khade and 30 other businesspersons, including a woman, are now part of
a league of 'Dalit crorepatis', comprising first-generation
entrepreneurs who run successful businesses and give jobs to others.
And they haven't used the ladder of quotas to get to the top,
preferring instead to strike out on their own, cocking a snook at the
cynics who disapprovingly cluck at the very mention of an inclusive
society based on positive discrimination. Propelled by sheer
grittiness and tremendous self-belief, they have arrived at a juncture
far removed from their predecessors and have acquired a clout their
forefathers wouldn't even have dreamt of. So much so that the
Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) is trying to formalise an
association with their body, the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and
Industry (DICCI).

"Why is it that the state still indulges in skill development jargon
for poor and leadership development for rich?"

And they are by no means done yet. "Every time I look at Fortune
magazine's list of billionaires," says Milind Kamble, CMD of Fortune
Construction Company, Pune, "I wonder when one of us will make it to
the list." When he says "one of us", Kamble is referring to the
country's most oppressed community, the Dalits, making it to the
world's list of the richest. Incidentally, Kamble takes some measure
of pride in one of his recent projects—laying the pipeline supplying
water to Baramati, the pocketborough of Union agriculture minister
Sharad Pawar. "Mein Pawar ko pani pilata hoon (give him water,
literally, but the phrase could also mean get the better of someone),"
he says jocularly.

Outlook's list of 30 Dalit crorepatis (sourced from the DICCI) is far
from complete; members of the chamber say the numbers are likely to
increase as more entrepreneurs come forward. But what makes each of
these success stories that much sweeter is the fact that it has come
after years of fighting a system whose very structure is designed to
keep Dalits out. Not only that, many of the enterprises are in areas
not traditionally open to the community.

As Surinder S. Jodhka of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies at
Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University puts it, "It is a tough struggle
in a market where businesses are run on networks and caste lines, and
being a Dalit often means no land and virtually no assets. The
discrimination is not just on the lines of untouchability, a whole
structure of stereotypes is built around them—that they lack the
required skills or can't speak good English—which takes time to work
around." Besides, Jodhka points out, the informal sector is brutal and
exploitative, while shrinking avenues of employment in the government
sector in the face of liberalisation have meant that the oppressed
classes have had to perforce step out and try to forge networks as
they rise up in the open market—the very reason DICCI was set up in

Not all are ready to raise a toast to the 30. Don't read much into
their lavish lifestyle and their BMWs, they say.

The market, say many of these Dalit entrepreneurs, is not quite the
leveller it is often made out to be. The poor and socially backward
find credit facilities to start something big hard to come by. Admits
Kalpana Saroj, chairperson of the Mumbai-based Kamani Tubes, which she
took over after clearing a debt of Rs 140 crore, "Being a woman and a
Dalit, it was really tough to make the grade."

Married off at the age of 12, Saroj took a loan of Rs 40,000 from
Allahabad Bank to purchase a few sewing machines and employed women to
stitch and embroider garments. But ambition got the better of her and
she moved soon enough into real estate and construction, using that
money to buy Kamani Tubes eventually. The company started small, but
today boasts a turnover of Rs 100 crore. Her next project: to buy a
helicopter before Diwali!

Did her Dalit background inhibit her in any way? "One has to move
forward," Saroj says philosophically, adding that the initiative has
come from her side. "Not all Dalits can become businessmen," notes
political writer Chandra Bhan, "just as not every bania (traditionally
traders) is a businessman. The Dalit crorepatis show how success is
possible within the system."

Once a business gets going, though, getting loans becomes easier for
expansion and diversification. Devjibhai Makwana from Bhavnagar,
Gujarat, found it difficult to source funds when he tried to set up a
unit manufacturing multi-filament yarn used in fishing nets. But now
things have changed, as his son Nagin Makwana explains. "My father
struggled to get a loan, now there is no dearth of bankers queuing up
to offer credit. We have a BMW now and our business of multi-filament
yarn can only look upwards." Currently, the Makwanas' Suraj Filament
has a turnover of Rs 300 crore.

Success, however, has not made these Dalit crorepatis turn their back
on where they came from. Instead, they are striving to uplift their
brethren, whether by example or through community service. Since
education is what liberated them from the chains of caste, Saroj,
Khade and others have opted to open schools in their villages. Dr
Sushant Meshram, whose father worked as a waiter in an ordnance
factory and who himself went on to become a fellow at the Johns
Hopkins University, is now putting the final touches on a
multi-speciality state-of-the-art hospital in Nagpur which will be
open to the public in a month's time. "Fortunately, I was a bright
student and did well in college. We are socially backward but we have
chosen not to be economically backward," he says.

There is also the more celebrated example of IIM graduate Sharath
Babu, who grew up in the slums of Chennai and whose mother sold idlis
for a living. He went on to study at BITS Pilani and then IIM-A and
started the eatery chain Food King four years ago. With his business
yielding an annual turnover of Rs 7 crore now, Sharath decided it was
time to repay the faith people reposed in his abilities. And so he
contested the recent assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. He feels people
like him should join politics to rid it of its bad name.

"Industrialists oppose reservations but welcome subsidised loans, tax
cuts—another form of reservation."

And where does the state figure in this saga of Dalit emancipation and
inclusion? Six decades after Independence, the state seems to have
confined itself to playing the welfare card with its schemes for the
scheduled castes. Employment of Dalits in the private sector is still
voluntary though the idea was mooted in 2007. And predictably, the
business lobby was quick to raise concerns of quality taking a hit
should it implement the suggested inclusive agenda, even as they would
publicly declare that the market does not discriminate on lines of
caste. Given this scenario, the number of backward castes making it to
top-level positions is virtually an impossibility. Something that irks
Professor Anil Gupta of IIM Ahmedabad no end. The state, he says, has
disengaged itself from where it should actively be helping. "Why is
that the state still engages in the skill development jargon for the
poor and talks of leadership development for the rich? How many
leadership institutes do we have in states where there's a larger
scheduled caste population?" he asks.

Ironically, inclusion is an initiative being taken by some Dalits
themselves. IIT Roorkee graduate Harish Bhaskar, who started the Kota
tutorials in Agra, takes pride in the fact that almost all castes come
to him to gain an entry to the elite IITs. Started 10 years ago,
Bhaskar says he is trying hard to persuade members of his community to
take education seriously. "Most of them are too scared to look at IITs
and IIMs, and there are few people to guide them," he says.

Not all, however, are hurrying to raise a toast to this group of 30.
Some fear the lobby of Dalit crorepatis might well be gobbled up by
big business as other enterprises have been by an unsentimental
market. Others say poverty and backwardness are still endemic to most
castes and not much should be read into the lavish lifestyle and BMWs
of Dalit businesspersons.

Which is not to say that new Dalit entrepreneurs should not be helped
along, and the field be made open to all. Karnataka announced a slew
of policies last year that ranged from a Rs 10 crore budgetary
allocation for the welfare of SC/STs and credit at 4 per cent rate of
interest by the state finance corporation to 40 per cent subsidy on
land. Says Baalu of the Karnataka chapter of small enterprises: "The
state can intervene with loans on easy terms of interest, easy credit
and subsidies on land—as are made available for the big business
houses." Adds professor Y.S. Alone of JNU: "All industrialists thrive
on government money and support. They are opposed to reservations but
welcome tax cuts, subsidised loans and many such government measures
which are another form of reservation."

Ask the Dalit crorepatis, and they say they don't see the need for
reservations for their children. Let others not as fortunate as us
avail of its benefits, they say. They are set on consolidating on the
gains they have made so far. And maybe get into Fortune's list of
billionaires. With a firm named Fortune Constructions, Kamble just
might make it there.

Top 10 Dalit Crorepati Club

* Natha Ram, Chairman, Steelmont Pvt Ltd, Mumbai, Turnover: Rs 600 crore
* Ashok Khade, CEO, Das Offshore Engineering, Mumbai, Rs 550 crore
* Kalpana Saroj, Chairperson, Kamani Tubes, Mumbai, Rs 100 crore
* Milind Kamble, CMD, Fortune Construction Company, Pune, Rs 101 crore
* Sanjay Kshirsagar, MD, Sound Concept, Mumbai, Rs 100 crore
* Devjibhai Makwana, CEO, Suraj Filament, Bhavnagar, Gujarat, Rs 300 crore
* Swwapnil Bhingardeve, MD, Khandoba Prassana Sakhar, Pune, Rs 90 crore
* Malkiat Chand, CEO, Janagal exports, Ludhiana, Rs 70 crore
* Dr Sushant Meshram, Multi-specialty hospital in Nagpur, Rs 40 crore
* Avinash Jagtap, CMD, Everest Spun Pipes, Pune, Rs 35 crore


20 Emerging 'Dalpatis'

* Sushil Kumar, MD, Simlex Engineers, Noida, Rs 25 crore
* Mahavir Singh, MD, Tricon Buildcon, Delhi, Rs 16 crore
* Rajendra Gaikwad, MD, GT Pest Control, Pune, Rs 15 crore
* Pradeep Nagrare, MD, P.K. Nagrare Construction, Nagpur, Rs 15 crore
* Dilip Bhai, CEO, Amba Synthetics, Bhavnagar, Rs 15 crore
* Jeetu Makwana, MD, Millennium Industries, Bhavnagar, Rs 10 crore
* Sharath Babu, CEO, Food King, Chennai, Rs 10 crore
* Harsh Bhaskar, Director, Kota Tutorials, Agra, Rs 10 crore
* Devanand Londhe, MD, Payod Industries, Pune, Rs 7 crore
* Raju Neele, MD, Sunrise Auto Pack, Aurangabad, Rs 7 crore
* Sukesh Ranjan, MD, ABS Beverages, Lucknow, Rs 7 crore
* Bijendra Singh, MD, Kabeera Printo Graphic, Faridabad, Haryana, Rs 6 crore
* Nand Kishor Chandan, MD, Samrat Ashoka Buildwell, Delhi, Rs 5 crore
* Madan Lal Khinder, MD, Rattan Brothers, Jalandhar, Punjab, Rs 5 crore
* Lalit Bhansod, MD, Comsolve Mediatech, Pune, Rs 4 crore
* J.S. Phulia, MD, Signet Freight Express, New Delhi, Rs 3 crore
* Shishupal Singh, CEO, Sangam Exports, Delhi, Rs 3 crore
* Shammi Kapoor, MD, Buildtech Engineers, Ludhiana, Rs 3 crore
* Devki Nandan Sone, MD, Hotel Taj Plaza, Agra, Rs 3 crore
* Sudhir Chaudhary, CEO, MD Plastics, Gurgaon, Rs 3 crore


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