“There are two kinds of poverty,” says the CEO of Das Offshore Engineering, Mumbai. “One that brutalises man, and the other which is humane and can be overcome through sheer hard work.” The second is what Khade prevailed over, to preside over a company with a Rs 550-crore turnover.
“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).
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 2005.
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.
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
20 Emerging ‘Dalpatis’
Your cover story on Dalit entrepreneurs was all the more inspiring because it’s come despite reservations (The Other Temple Entry, May 2). Quotas have become a tool in the hands of politicians to woo minorities and cement votebanks. One has to admire this group for rejecting this crutch and standing up on their own feet. I hope their example teaches others of their community that as long as reservations exist, they’ll remain backward.
A. Bhuvana Bhimaiah, Bangalore
How atrocious that you should call educated, hard-working, enterprising individuals ‘Dalit Crorepatis’, as if they are cattle of a particular breed. It is shameful you should propagate casteism in this manner. Have you ever called the Birlas Banias or the Ambanis Gujjus or any other ‘respectable’ people by their castes?
Sangeeta Rao, on e-mail
Surprised that you omitted to mention the richest of them all: Madam Mayawati!
Nakul Kamani, Jamshedpur
What is it about Maharashtra that’s given us Dalits icons like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and now this set of millionaires from the community in a liberalised and globalised India? It is time the new India woke up and became more responsive to the community. And, oh, what happened to the inclusive growth mantra the government was chanting? Should we wait till the next elections?
Hanumaiah Satishkumar, Bangalore
India should take a cue from the US and see light in affirmative action. The American government gives preferential treatment to minority-owned businesses, which benefits even upper-caste immigrant Indians. Dalit business in India would benefit enormously from such policies.
Rajesh Chandra, Phoenix, US
What does success have to do with caste? If you work hard, you’re sure to get success. Such an article only creates “negative awareness” about caste.
Jitin S. Nair, Mumbai
What does success have to do with caste? It has everything to do with caste discrimination, if not caste. In a country where caste barriers exist in every aspect of life, it makes it that much harder for Dalits to succeed, especially in areas where untouchability and caste discrimination still persist.
As much as we need Dalit entrepreneurs and billionaires, we also need a strong Dalit middle class. Have 60 years of reservation for Dalits created anything like that?
I am surprised to see that the representation of the lower castes in different sectors is low in the south, considering that it has a higher percentage of Dalits, and anti-Brahminism is the soul of much of its politics. It’s also interesting to see Maharashtra ahead of all states, although there is relatively less caste politics in the state.
Santosh Gairola, Taiwan
Thirty Dalit crorepatis do not make an occasion for celebration. It has to be seen whether economic security sits pretty in a Dalit household situated inside a universe of exploitation. It has to be seen whether a Dalit’s success can beget him social respect. The social emancipation of Dalits is still miles away.
Sunil Kumar, Delhi
I hope more Indians, Dalits or otherwise, follow their example. Unfortunately, too many people are getting inspired by the ‘other’ Dalit crorepatis: A. Raja and Mayawati.
G. Natrajan, Hyderabad
An interesting, impressive and inspirational cover story. Reminded me of Longfellow’s immortal words: Heights by great men reached and kept/ Were not attained by sudden flight//But they, while their companions slept/Were toiling upward in the night.
B.S. Bhatnagar, on e-mail
The caste system and its exploitation by the politicians in India is the bane of civil society. There can never be any justification of it on any grounds.
Akbar Shah, Dubai
At last, a piece of India Shining!
Y.G. Chouksey, Pune
Apropos your cover story The Other Temple Entry (May 2), I question the need to create social divisions in commerce and industry by having a separate DICCI and FICCI. Merging the two would provide synergies to both sets of industries, besides eliminating the labelling of enterprises based on their owner’s class status.
Is this Milind Kamble, CMD, Fortune Construction Company, Pune, Rs 101 crore????
And he had claimed to be Owner of dr.ambedkar.com whcih was changed to dr-ambedkar.com ..becuase this crorepati could not spend his 25USD to renew the Site for Ambedkar!!!!
He went on begging and asking people /govt to pay for his marketing web site in the nameof Ambedkar......but himself could not spend 25 USD...and now teh website is down.
So much dedication to Ambedkar from him that even after having 101 Crores(as claimed) he can not keep up the web site!!!
Looks like he onnly wants free money from others or is fake
Even if the article would have been presented as Millionaires rising from very very humble beginnings, like many such success stories with humble beginnings... this artcile could have passed muster...i agree wholeheartedly with almost all above comments, Outlook as a media giant should be careful of what it presents to scoiety ....be the ray of light looking ahead....
Discrimination is discrimination whether practiced by ‘Brahmins, Backward class or the Dalit’s’.
Denying education and denying opportunity to certain group of people by anyone of the aforementioned groups is discriminatory.
"Casteism" as practiced now in India cannot be directed only to Brahmins but towards OBC and Dalits too. It is the OBC and the Dalits who have official – government stamped certificates now to proclaim their cast status. It is time the media takes the step to call this group ‘modern casteist’ or ‘post-independent India casteist’ or ‘contemporary casteist’.
Today there are recorded cases of discrimination practiced and established by the government of India, Indian politicians, Indian educational institutions, and minority institutions to suppress vast cross-section of people in the name of correcting past imbalances.
The present government of India has not used the tool of reservation constructively – they have and they are doling it out selectively. It has been used by the ruling party and ruling politicians to promote their own agenda and their own myopic view of playing vote bank politics. Why not call them on it? Many of them have become crorepatis promoting reservation and divisiveness. That is not a recipe to build a modern nation.
What has sucess got to do with caste?
It has every thing to do with caste discrimination if not caste. In a country caste barrier exists in every aspect of life, dalits have not only fight poverty but also discrimination which makes much harder to succeed especially people in villages were untouchability, outright caste discrimination still persists,
What has success got to do with caste?
If you work hard you're sure to get success.Such an article only creates more of "negative awareness" about caste.Outlook should not have done this artice.
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