From 'Untouchable' To CEO, Businesses Break Down Caste Barriers In India
Many of India's 170 million Dalits still live as outcasts. Some of
these so-called "untouchables," however, have turned to
entrepreneurship as a way out of poverty and social isolation.
Portrait of a nation caught between ancient traditions and bustling
By Patrick de Jacquelot
MUMBAI -- When the Hindu temple in his hometown began falling apart,
Ashok Khade agreed to pay for its reconstruction. He certainly had the
means. Khade is CEO and co-owner – along with his brothers – of Das
Offshore Engineering, a company that builds equipment for offshore
rigs and boasts 20 million euros in annual sales.
Still, the decision was quite remarkable – for one simple reason: as a
child, Khade hadn't been allowed inside the temple. Why? Because he's
a Dalit, a member of India's "untouchable" caste. From those humblest
of beginnings, Khade grew up to become the village's savior and
benefactor. "I feel really successful!" he admits with a smile.
Khade belongs to a very small group of successful Dalit businessmen.
But the number of companies founded and led by the men – and few women
– of that community is growing, and these new CEOs want it to be
known. With the help of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and
Industry (DICCI), these untouchable entrepreneurs are organizing a big
business fair in Mumbai, India's financial capital. "We are going to
show off our knowhow to Indian companies and to Indian society as a
whole," says DICCI President Milind Kamble.
That Dalits can become millionaires by starting their own businesses
is an astonishing phenomenon for Indian society. Heavily discriminated
against, Dalits were until recently restricted to the least qualified
jobs, like farming – without owning the land of course. The only other
option was to work in the public sector, which starting in the second
half of the 20th century, began allotting a certain number of slots to
the so-called Scheduled Castes, or SCs.
Now, however, as India's economy is being redrawn along free market
lines, both types of jobs are disappearing, according to Surinder
Jodhka, a caste expert at the Nehru University in Dehli. With no other
options available, some untouchables are trying to start businesses of
their own. "For young Dalits the solution is often to raise 20,000
rupees (300 euros) and open a shop or a medical office," says Jodhka.
The case for affirmative action
The gradual modernization of the Indian economy has also increased the
prestige of starting a business. Milind Kamble is a perfect example.
"I'm the son of a small town teacher, in a family with no business
tradition. My only advantage was that my family was educated," says
Kamble. "When I got my engineering degree, my father really wanted me
to get a job in the administration, but I said no. He was furious."
After several years as an employee, Kamble created his own civil
engineering company. Today, Future Constructions brings in about 10
million euros per year and Kamble, who always supported the Dalit
cause, became a champion of Dalit entrepreneurship. For him, their
weapon is "capitalism against castism." Kamble believes the
traditional caste system cannot survive in a modern economic
"We were inspired by the American 'affirmative action' policies," he
says. "They had black businessmen before having Obama as president!"
Dr. Nanda K.K. describes himself as a pure product of India's own
version of affirmative action. "When I was young, even when we had
nothing to eat we would study," he recalls. "In the Andhra Pradesh,
were I live, there was a system to push Dalits to study, and that's
what helped me become a doctor. I had a reserved spot at the
university, housing and a scholarship."
After working for 15 years as a small town doctor, Nanda – with the
help of subsidies – opened a hospital in Hyderabad, the State capital.
Today he manages a hospital with 150 beds and 15 specialized doctors
and works on anti-AIDS programs with "Bill Gates Foundation grants."
But he dismisses the idea that all this help actually made things too
easy. "These programs allow us to have financial stability, that's
all. We have to be good doctors in order to succeed," he says.
Still, starting a business remains very difficult for Dalits.
"Business is done through networks, especially caste networks," says
Surinder Jodhka. "Since Dalits are newcomers, they don't have these
kinds of networks. That makes it much more difficult for them to get a
loan from a supplier. Most often, they don't have any assets to put up
as a guaranty for a bank loan. In other communities, you usually have
land or property. There is still prejudice against them. People tend
not to trust them."
To help the development of Dalit capitalism, the Indian government
passed a long-awaited measure last month requiring the state and
public companies to make 20% of their purchases from Indian
businesses. A fifth of those purchases – 4% of the total – will have
to be made from businesses belonging to SCs or STs (Scheduled Tribes –
members of the country's old tribes.)
For Shandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit intellectual, it is a "historic"
decision that will help the community's businessmen "enter the
system." Indeed there is a lot of money at stake for these companies:
4% of public purchases represent more than a billion euros.
"At the beginning there won't be enough Dalit businesses to supply
demand," says Digvijay Singhm, one of the leaders of the Congress
party and former prime minister of Madhya Pradesh. "But newcomers will
emerge to take advantage of the situation."
Resisting a call for quotas
Another often talked about measure involves requiring the private
sector to hire quotas of outcasts. The idea, which was part of Indian
National Congress President Sonia Gandhi's platform for the 2009
elections, has not been well received by the industry. "We really hope
this will never happen. It would be completely inefficient," says
Chandrajit Banerjee, the leader of the CII employers' union.
The idea has been floating around for years but major companies are
working hard to prove that they are already pushing for Dalit
integration and there is no need for government intervention. "The
Tata group is a strong supporter of "affirmative action," says CII
President B. Muthuraman, who also serves as vice-president for Tata
Muthuraman claims that 19% of Tata Steel employees are SCs or STs, a
figure that corresponds roughly to their share of the population. None
of the company's Dalits, however, have high ranking positions. "Not
yet," he says. "The road is still long."
Ashok Khade's rags to riches story, in other words, remains something
of an anomaly in India. But it's proof that changes are afoot. His
success also gives young Dalits a reason to be more optimistic. "I am
the first Indian to become the partner of an Abu Dhabi prince," says
Khade, who created a joint venture with a group from the Emirates.
Read the original story in French
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