A Silver Lining in Dark Slums

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

There is refreshing news of how education and liberalization propel the world’s most downtrodden people up to the top list of billionaires. Indeed, the achievements of such people are even greater and praiseworthy since they successfully managed to climb up the economic ladder in spite of traditional discrimination they have faced for ages.India is full of extremes and paradoxes. A league of more than 30 Dalit ‘crorepatis’ (billionaires) comprising first-generation entrepreneurs who run successful businesses and give jobs to others shows how Dalits (oppressed people), through sheer hard work and competition, can make it to the top defying odds and castes.

One such success story is that of a woman, Kalpana Saroj who got married off at the age of twelve. With a loan of Rs 40, 000 she first purchased a few sewing machines and employed women to stitch and embroider garments. Grit coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve brought her into real estate and construction, and she is now heading Mumbai-based Kamani tubes company which boasts of Rs 100 crore (Rs one billion) business.

When he cruises past his village in his BMW, Ashok Kade weeps and often asks his chauffeur to stop by a huge tree; he steps out and rests in its shade, gives it a hug and even talks to the tree. Since his birth, his caste-status marked him out for exclusion from the village ground, the well, its water, the temple and almost everything. Khade clutched firmly at education, sweated out in the docks during the day and studied for a diploma in mechanical engineering at night, living under staircases at times for lack of money to pay rent. Today, his company, Das Offshore undertakes construction assignments, builds skywalks or foot overbridges; his empire is worth Rs 550 crore (Rs 5.5 billion) and has a workforce of 4500 people.

A refreshing change from the usual mucky corruption news hitting the headlines lately! Milind Kamble always dreamt of becoming a billionaire every time he looks at the list of billionaires published in the magazine Fortune. Today, as the CMD of Fortune Construction Company, he has made it to the world’s list of the richest. In Gujarat, Nagin Makwana runs a business of multi-filament yarn with a turnover of Rs 3 billion.

What is inspiring is that the new breed of entrepreneurs were propelled by sheer grit and tremendous self-belief in areas not traditionally open to their community, putting up a tough struggle in a market where businesses are run on networks and caste lines. All this has come true after years of fighting a system whose very structure is designed to keep them out. Not to mention discrimination along the lines of untouchability, a whole structure of stereotypes about their lack of skills and poor command of English. Traditions have fortunately been overtaken by the democratic and humanitarian principles that underlie the Constitution of the Indian Republic established a mere 60 years ago. Even so tremendous personal effort has been and continues to be necessary.

Besides, liberalization has been a blessing in disguise, causing Dalits to step out and try to forge networks as they rise up in the open market. Notwithstanding the 2007 idea to hire people irrespective of castes in the private sector, employment of Dalits is still voluntary. The state has confined itself to playing the welfare card, often treating the poorest as a mere vote bank. However, Dalit entrepreneurs have made it from slums to riches outside the affirmative action state policy of job quotas in the public sector.

Successful Dalit crorepatis are striving to uplift their brethren through community service and education. Dr Sushant Meshram whose father worked as a waiter in a factory is soon to open a multi-speciality state-of-the-art hospital in Nagpur which will be open to the public in a month’s time.

Saroj, Khade and others have opted to open schools in their villages. Sharath Babu, whose mother sold idlis for a living in Chennai, started the eatery chain Food King four years ago which yields Rs 70 million annually. He joined politics and encouraged people to do so to rid politics of its bad name in a state where middle caste grip on political affairs poses a serious challenge.

Poverty and backwardness are still endemic among Dalits and huge inroads are yet to be made. The state has succeeded in bringing rebellious areas into the mainstream through education and job opportunities, which is much better than dropping bombs on its own children. Tribals and Adivasis living in remote places still encounter horrendous discrimination, lack of access to proper health care, education and employment.

 Human beings improve through education, job opportunities and economic prosperity. If this policy is applied on a wider scale, there might well be fewer ‘internal security threats’. The number of successful businessmen is expected to rise, and it is desirable that a strong middle class arises. We may rightly say that the new entrepreneurs are role models for the downtrodden in the world and their success stories unveil further possibilities in a new India.  

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2011

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