New Delhi, December, 27 : Around 40 years ago, huddled among a group of hungry children in his native village of Vadgaon Budruk in Maharashtra, Rajendra Gaikwad had an epiphany about how there was discrimination in a simple seating arrangement.
It was a mass lunch thrown by upper-caste Marathas and the nine-year-old was seated along with his mother in a corner of the temple where Dalits of the village ate. “We were segregated from the upper-caste Hindus, which was very humiliating. Even as a child, I felt insulted and would cry each time my parents would talk of visiting the village. I didn’t return after that,’’ he says.
Gaikwad is today based in Pune and runs a pest-control firm with operations in India and Singapore. He is also a member of a growing band of Dalit entrepreneurs who have eagerly grabbed the opportunities offered by a booming Indian economy to break the occupational shackles imposed on their community for centuries.
Atin Kamble is a third-generation Dalit entrepreneur from Mumbai who has none of Gaikwad’s bitter childhood tales to tell. After eight years in the business of marketing edible goods in Mumbai shops through his venture Arti Enterprises, 36-year-old Kamble is ambitiously pitching for two power-generation projects in Arunanchal Pradesh, which would need an investment of a minimum of Rs.15 crore initially.
His grandfather began with a modest business of leather goods, a vocation traditionally allocated to Dalits, in Mumbai’s crowded Dadar area; his father expanded the family business but Kamble chose to strike out on his own.
“I somehow found sitting in my grandfather’s leather business shop infra dig. I mean, it’s a peon’s job, if you are ambitious. I wanted to do something that would give our business the status of industry,” he says. And adds: “Today I am dealing with distributors and local shopkeepers in the food business. When my children take over, they will be dealing with super stockists.”
As opposed to Kamble’s pedigree and Gaikwad’s fortunes, Dashrath Singh, who uses a surname mostly used by upper-caste Rajputs in India, is still struggling in the garments business he runs from a rundown garage in the congested Om Nagar slum in Delhi. Yet, from where he stands today, it isn’t just a matter of miles covered, but it’s a significant leap from his native village of Vari in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahar district to Delhi.
Singh’s work over a decade has included a series of humble vocations, among them a helper at a grocery shop, an autorickshaw driver, a door-to-door salesman of clothes, and a conductor in private buses, before the idea of entrepreneurship struck him. Three years into his business, he sometimes “earns lakhs in a month and sometimes just a paltry sum”. But he insists things couldn’t get better. “Whatever it is, I am on my own. I seek no favours,” he explains.
Gaikwad, Kamble and Singh are three faces of an emerging Dalit capitalism that allows them an escape both from the demeaning tasks assigned to them by the caste system and the stigma of being branded as non-meritorious beneficiaries of reservations in education and employment.
D. Shyam Babu, a fellow of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies (RGICS) in New Delhi, says Dalit capitalism is still at a nascent stage, but adds that it will help create a Dalit bourgeoisie. “It has the seeds of transformation for Dalits—from the lower class to the middle class and beyond,” says Babu, whose research on Dalits and the new economic order has highlighted the social advance of the community in the wake of globalization.
“I know Dalit entrepreneurs who manufacture copper wires and cables for use by the Indian Railways and the Delhi Metro, which proves that these businesses are competitive, quality-oriented and efficient. This is what Dalits in business want to prove today: they are good as everyone else,” says author and activist Chandra Bhan Prasad, who is currently compiling a database of entrepreneurs in the community.
Though the rise of the market economy has helped break many old social barriers, Dalit businessmen still have to deal with several hurdles on their chosen road.
“Most Dalit entrepreneurs face problems varying from difficulty in getting enough supplies on credit, lack of social networks, absence of kin groups in the business, and control of traditionally dominant business-caste groups. These, along with other social variables such as lack of social capital, make the Dalit situation in India more complicated and vulnerable to homogeneous categorization,” says Surinder S. Jodhka, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Jodhka’s paper, ‘Dalits in Business: Self-Employed Scheduled Castes in Northwest India’, drew insight on the expansion of private capital in India during the post-1991 period and highlighted the discrimination faced by Dalit businesses. The marginal status of Dalits and their continued discrimination in the urban labour market also find recognition in the 11th Five Year Plan released in October 2008. The paper notes that “in urban areas, too, there is prevalence of discrimination by caste, particularly discrimination in employment, which operates at least in part through traditional mechanisms; SCs (scheduled castes) are disproportionately represented in poorly paid, dead-end jobs. Further, there is a flawed preconceived notion that they lack merit and are unsuitable for formal employment”.
A poor economic and social background thus makes the beginning difficult—only to be eased by outside help, mostly from the community or well-off upper-caste individuals. “Forty years ago, when I began, I would go on a cycle in rain and sun to various places—from a poultry farm to an army cantonment, to kill rats and do odd jobs. I slowly learnt that businesses need hard work and professionalism,” Gaikwad says. In almost an afterthought, he adds: “A gentlemen called Mr. Deshpande helped me get a loan from a bank by agreeing to be a guarantor. The fact that he was an upper-caste man did help in making my application appear serious.”
S. Galab, a professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies in Hyderabad, who carried out research on the role and effectiveness of self-help groups run by Dalit women in Andhra Pradesh, says most Dalit enterprises suffer because of social isolation and the lack of cooperation, and get over the initial hiccups only with help from upper-caste individuals, since Dalits haven’t had a strong footing in the social and economic sphere for centuries. “However, the upper caste help also, kind of, co-opts the Dalits into the overall existing structures, which is why they find it difficult to think about giving back to their community later,” he cautions.
Various economic fora have also emerged over the years to help Dalits overcome initial hurdles in setting up businesses. At the Pune-based Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, formed three years ago, its chairman Milind Kamble not just works on a database of Dalit businessmen, but also helps them find linkages in industry.
And yet, argues author and activist Prasad, the emerging entrepreneurship will need government help to thrive. “The government ought to constitute a body, say, the ‘National Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Supplier Development Council’, which should identify Dalit/tribal entrepreneurs who are already supplying goods and services to the government through middlemen, and connecting them directly to procurement departments,” he says, citing examples from the US, where a national body connects minority entrepreneurs with large American firms.
To those who say that such a practice goes against the spirit of a free market, Prasad argues that the Indian bourgeoisie itself would not have thrived without state support and protection till 1991. “Dalit businesses particularly need help since most of these are small-scale operations,” he adds.
Explaining that economic standing is the only way Dalits can redefine themselves, RGICS’ Babu likens the trend to the wave of Black Capitalism in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. “There are strong similarities. Like the black capitalists of America, most of the Dalit entrepreneurs are first-generation entrepreneurs, people who were never into businesses but mostly relying on agricultural labour. To get into serious business from agriculture is a paradigm shift. And, in both cases, here as in the United States, even though there have been state interventions to promote entrepreneurship, individual motivation and community help have come first,” Babu says.