Monday, December 19, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Business as unusual

Business as unusual

Harish S Wankhede Posted online: Mon Dec 19 2011, 03:34 hrs

Post-Ambedkar, many generations of Dalits have struggled to make
society and politics a more equitable space. However, there is now an
emerging cohort of Dalits who have somewhat different needs —
capitalising on the benefits of the welfare state, this new class has
entered the so-far-unexplored domain of economic competition. Many
Dalit businesses have been remarkably successful, even without state

More than 150 entrepreneurs participated in the recently concluded
National Trade Fair of Dalit Entrepreneurs in Mumbai, including a
multi-national manufacturer of sugar with plants in West Africa, a
crane manufacturer from Bahadurgarh in Haryana who supplies machines
to BHEL, engineering consultants and property developers from Nagpur
and a hosiery manufacturer from Ludhiana who exports his entire
production to Europe.

This class has not blindly bought into the rhetoric of middle-class
aspiration, it understands only too well the difficulties and limits
that Dalits face in the open market. Instead, this emerging Dalit
class, along with intellectuals and the state, have proposed several
new initiatives to ensure their entry into the new economic sphere —
and these new approaches have the capacity to tilt the dominant
discourse of the globalised market economy.

In the liberal discourse, democracy and capitalism are seen as the two
necessary instruments for the overall growth of an individual's
capacities. Dr Ambedkar was influenced by such humanistic liberal
values, which were reflected in the Constitution he crafted. However,
in actual terms, human relations were still structured by caste and
social oppression. Only at exceptional locations is an individual's
"free will" respected. Dalits, Muslims and women still remained at the
periphery, while other castes/categories dominated the sphere of the

Dalits are conventionally assumed to be poor, stuck with dead-end
jobs, and lacking in what it takes to be an entrepreneur or a business
leader. Given these assumptions, they are subject to multiple kinds of
discrimination in society and in the market. In the Eleventh Five Year
Plan, it was noticed that Scheduled Castes (SCs) are
disproportionately represented, poorly paid and face particular
discrimination in gaining employment in open market. In an India that
seeks to be a leading globalised market economy, such crude
identification of one particular group militates against the ideas
that drive the neo-liberal economy.

In earlier decades, Dalits gained from the initiatives of the
Nehruvian welfare-socialist agenda. However, in the last two decades
of privatisation in the Indian economy, the benefits of reservation
policy have bottomed out. The market tends to function under the aegis
of traditionally dominant caste groups; nepotism, conventional
networks and kinship still operate in Indian business. Dalits, are
regarded as relative outsiders in the world of business, and the odds
are stacked against them. However, despite these adverse
circumstances, some Dalit entrepreneurs have demonstrated remarkable
achievement in their individual business enterprises.

This new generation of successful Dalit entrepreneurs has opened a new
debate. They locate the globalised market economy as the domain of
free competition, and thus, beneficial to the educated Dalits. This
endorsement is different from the standard Dalit positions that argue
that the state should continue to be responsible in empowering Dalits.
In the new discourse, reservation policy appears limited and is often
perceived as a "compensatory package" by the state to provide status
and position to "representative candidates" from among the deprived
sections. It may provide a moral justification for the welfare state,
but cunningly reduces Dalits into passive recipients. It appears as
though the benevolent state is "giving" the profits to the needy, but
not that these "deprived sections" genuinely deserve them as a matter
of right. This approach may provide certain material benefits to
socially deprived groups, but it does not challenge the core question
of marginalisation that constricts their individuality, free will and
capacity to perform in the economic domain. Such agendas of social
justice do not look at the fundamental reasons for their deprivation.

Thinking beyond reservations is the latest appeal of this emerging
Dalit entrepreneur class. They look at the state as their moral
partner in such endeavours and demand new safeguards, protections and
benefits, which will help chart their entry in the economic arena.
They ask for proactive affirmative action by the state to reduce the
vulnerability of the Dalits in the market.

For the state, which has now adopted neo-liberal economic policies as
a given, this is the real test. The aspirations and courage of this
new class of Dalits is phenomenal, but they will remain a few
scattered stories without the equal and determined support of the
state. The state must also look beyond reservations, to promote these
new entrants in the market economy.

The writer is assistant professor of political science at Delhi University


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