Wednesday, December 21, 2011

[ZESTCaste] 'Dalit' millionaires look to inspire others

21 Dec, 2011, 11.36AM IST, AFP
'Dalit' millionaires look to inspire others

MUMBAI: On the face of it, entrepreneur Ashok Khade is just another
one of India's growing wealthy, heading a successful $27 million
infrastructure and oil and gas business group that employs 4,500

But the 56-year-old is a rarity, as he belongs to India's dalit, or
"untouchable" classes, who for centuries have been anchored at the
bottom of Hinduism's caste system and remain among the most exploited
and despised.

The opening up of India's economy has helped bring in some mobility in
the rigid social hierarchy, leading to a gradual rise in jobs and
opportunities for India's poorest and even created a new breed -- the
dalit millionaire.

Khade, a first-generation businessman who now drives a BMW, battled
poverty and discrimination as a child in a village near Sangli in
Maharashtra state, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) from India's
financial hub, Mumbai.

After graduating in mechanical engineering, he came to Mumbai to work
at Mazgaon Docks, a leading shipyard that makes warships and
submarines for the Indian Navy.

He acquired technical skills and, after a stint in Germany, came back
to India in 1995 to set up the DAS Offshore group, which has built
offshore oil platforms as well as worked on transport infrastructure

As growth opportunities improve across India's hinterland, dalits are
starting to seek senior jobs and set up businesses, said Khade.

"The biggest problem for dalits today is that they have no godfather,"
Khade told AFP, citing the lack of role models in contrast to India's
Hindu, Jain and Parsi communities.

"There is an opinion that dalits cannot take one step without others'
help," added Milind Kamble, chairman of the Dalit Indian Chamber of
Commerce and Industry (DICCI), a lobby group to promote the cause and
interests of dalits.

"And we want to change that, show that we can do it," he told
reporters last week.

DICCI held its first all-India trade fair last weekend in Mumbai,
where dalit entrepreneurs from 200 companies met to discuss how to
boost business opportunities for their community.

India has an estimated 165 million dalits, who are shunned by higher
castes, often forced into the lowliest occupations and are the poorest
in terms of income, literacy and land.

Caste discrimination is officially illegal in India but still pervades
many aspects of daily life, especially outside cities.

However in recent years, several dalit entrepreneurs have emerged,
setting up companies in manufacturing, engineering, and food
processing, Kamble told AFP.

Two of India's prominent politicians, Mayawati, the chief minister of
India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh, and Ram Vilas Paswan, a
parliamentarian and former minister, both belong to low castes.

The architect of India's constitution, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, remains
a hero and an inspiration for millions of poor Indians for having
risen above his lowly birth.

India's government is considering making it compulsory to buy a
percentage of its annual purchases from units set up and operated by
dalits and tribal people, which are both major electoral
constituencies in India.

But Kamble says the biggest hurdle for dalits is to raise collateral
to obtain loans from banks and institutions.

"They are thus unable to raise any equity," he added.

DICCI is planning to set up a venture capital fund next year with an
estimated worth of five billion rupees (nearly $100 million) to help
needy and potential dalit entrepreneurs.

"We have to stop fighting capitalism and secure our share in India's
wealth," Kamble said.

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