Hard to fight, new wave on
Bottom of the caste system, the entrepreneurial drive of the Dalits used to be stifled. But slowly that’s all changing, writes Richard Orange in Mumbai
Stepping on to the factory floor of Suryatech Solar Systems is a test of faith. A welded patchwork of rusting scrap has been used to make a second mezzanine floor in a crumbling warehouse on the outskirts of Pune, south-east of Mumbai. Every move is followed by an unnerving boom of wobbling, creaking metal.
“This is the production line,” says Mukund Kamalakar, Suryatech’s founder, beaming proudly. “I started it in the last year. Before, I used to purchase panels – now we are making 700 to 1,000 each year.”
It is a humble set-up – just a series of worktables and a few machines to cut and shape metal into solar-powered water heaters. But in founding Suryatech, Kamalakar – a strapping six-footer – has broken new ground for his caste, the Dalits, who lie at the foot of the old Hindu caste system.
According to Forbes magazine, India has more dollar billionaires than any country except the US and China. Steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal and billionaire brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani are, respectively, the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-richest men in the world.
But all three of them, like 27 of the 39 Indians on the Forbes rich list, come from India’s traditional merchant communities. India’s untouchables, the “scheduled castes and tribes” who make up the bottom quarter of India’s 1.2 billion population, are absent.
“There are no business icons from the scheduled castes,” says Prakash Ambedkar, the leader of Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh, a faction of the Republican Party of India. “They have missed the bus.” His grandfather, Babasaheb Ambedkar, was the Dalit leader who did most to free his caste from the discrimination of untouchability – which made them ritually unclean to “higher” Hindus. He wrote the Indian constitution in 1949, outlawing caste discrimination.
That Dalits are still completely absent from the list of India’s rich 60 years later is, Ambedkar argues, one of the darkest blemishes on the country’s recent economic progress.
When Kamalakar quit his old job in 1999 and put 30,000 rupees (£400) of his savings into setting up his solar panel business, the biggest barriers were inside his own caste community. “For three months,” he remembers. “I did not inform my father and mother that I had resigned. I used to take my tiffin and go and sit in an Irani café. They would not understand why I wanted to resign my good job in government to start this kind of business.”
Now his business has revenues of more than R10m a year, enough to buy Kamalakar a smart new Honda and a Compaq laptop. But he believes discrimination still exists. As a college student in 1983, he joined the Dalit Cobras, a student protest group, because he was angry that despite his skills at cricket, badminton and hockey, he never made the college teams. He also dropped his Dalit name, Kamble. “This success story is due only to Kamalakar, not Kamble,” he says. “Now I have sold 3,000 solar systems. If I was Kamble, I would not have sold more than 100.
“I changed my name only because I wanted entry. When they know afterwards he’s not a Kamalakar, he’s a Kamble, they have to accept me.”
Santosh Lalu Prashad, who owns the warehouse housing Suryatech’s factory, has been working with Kamalakar for eight years. But until they were interviewed for this article, they had no idea that they came from the same cobbler subcaste.
“It is simply not open,” says Prashad. “Suppose you come to know that I am scheduled caste. You are not going to co-operate with me. You are not going to do business. You will think ‘he is bloody scheduled caste.'”
Prashad’s father was a coal miner. “He doesn’t know how to write. But I was top in class in my school and my father thought, ‘he’s getting first class. Why do I not make him an engineer?'”
For Kamalakar’s father, Maruti Rao, the fight for basic civil rights, such as being permitted to enter hotels, temples, schools or barber shops, eclipsed any talk of entrepreneurialism. “When I passed my exams in English and came to Pune,” he remembers, “a barber cut my hair but then he came to know my caste. He ran after me and began to fight with me.”
Rao’s generation was the first to break away from making shoes and sandals, the traditional business of the Chambhar subcaste, work he helped his own father with throughout school. But in Pune he become a headmaster and a founder member of the prosperous Dalit co-operative society.
“Business was not a part of their goals,” says Ambedkar. “Their first job was to get themselves educated. The first opportunity they got was government jobs, because government jobs offered them financial viability and financial stability.”
Kamalakar’s previous job, as a director in the state government’s alternative energy department, was just the kind of stable government job that educated Dalits have taken over the past 50 years.
Kamalakar attributes the dominance of traditional merchant communities in India’s billionaire list to attitudes built up over centuries. The Marwari business clan from Rajasthan, which has provided a remarkable proportion of India’s industrialists, was established as traders across India as early as the 17th century, acting as bankers to everyone from the Great Mughal down.
“We are the first Dalit generation who have become industrialists,” says Kamalakar. “We only started in business 20 to 25 years ago. The Marwari have been doing business for the last 5,000 years.”
Other castes have also banded together to seek success. “Bombay has a large number of hotels run by the Shetty caste,” says Ambedkar. “You have a Shetty bank in which every Shetty hotel contributes daily, and from where every Shetty who wants to start a hotel is given a loan.”
Dalits, though, have had to rely on the co-operative and government banks, staffed predominantly by members of higher castes, he says – with the implication that money has not been easy to come by. So he is leading a drive to launch a government-backed bank to fund Dalit-owned businesses, converting a scheme launched in his state, Maharashtra, into a country-wide institution.
The difficulty in getting capital explains why, for now, many of the most prominent Dalit businessmen are the sons of politicians. Milind Kamble, a friend of Kamalakar who runs a small construction business, says: “Some Dalit politicians’ sons and children have established very big businesses, because capital is generated [by politics] in so many ways. I will not go into the details.”
He runs off a short list of Pune-based Dalits involved in the IT and engineering industries whose fathers were in politics.
There is just one Dalit-backed company among the 4,700 listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange: the textile group Visaka Industries. Its founder, G Vivekanand, is the son of G Venkat Swamy, who was India’s textile minister when the company was launched in 1983. Vivekanand says he didn’t receive any money, but he admits the connections helped. “Maybe initially, because he was in power, I got a licence,” he says. “But I didn’t use his name after that.”
Ambedkar believes that Dalits will not prosper in business until they develop the same self-help ethos as merchant communities.
“The helping nature is there, but you don’t find the kind of knitting you find in the Marwaris, in the Patels, in the Reddys, or in the Khatris: passing on business, passing on information.”
Kamalakar says few Dalit entrepreneurs are yet in a financial position to help others. “I am working from morning to night. I am busy with my own problems, busy with my own works. When people become self-sufficient and secured of funds, then we will help one another.”
In the mid-1990s, Vivekanand helped another Hyderabad-based Dalit, Srikant Murthy, take Anasuya spinning mills on to the Bombay Exchange. But it ran into funding difficulties and was delisted.
Four years ago, Milind Kamble started the Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) in Pune, deliberately apeing the Federation of Indian Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the business lobby dominated by India’s merchant communities.
“If there is an FICCI, I thought that in parallel we should have our own forum, a DICCI. And so we are gathering to interact with each other, like the Marwari community. That’s the idea.” But while Kamble has gained some 50 members, he admits that he’s been too busy to hold many meetings.
The brightest hope is the next generation. Kamalakar has bought a plot of land on the outskirts of Pune where he hopes to build a new factory that his only son, Mayur, 15, can make the foundation of his own business.
“I have made the platform, Mayur will maybe expand it. Then Mayur’s son will definitely expand it,” he says.
Mayur is happy to take on the role: “My dream is to make our company very big and national.”
However, both concede that the Marwari community is going to take some beating. “Marwaris and Gujeratis are more involved in business because it’s genetic for them,” says Mayur. At school, his Marwari friend already spends much of his spare time at his father’s shop, learning business skills, he points out.
Ambedkar knows it will take more than a new Dalit bank for the community to rival this. “The Dalits will have to work on a system: each one has to support each other,” he explains. “Unless this concept comes up, I don’t see that Dalit community rising higher than they are today.
“I think it will take more than 20 years. I think it will take a long time.”
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