Dalit millionaires defy caste
system By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India's Dalits (former
Untouchables), whose growing electoral influence
has been visible for some years, are beginning to
slowly reveal their economic muscle. A miniscule
but expanding group of first-generation Dalit
entrepreneurs has thrown up some millionaires.
This has triggered debate on the role that
economic liberalization has played in changing
According to the Dalit
Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), there
are over 30 Dalit crorepatis (one whose net
wealth exceeds a crore or 10 million rupees -
roughly US$205,400) in the country.
the number of crorepatis is exceedingly
small especially since there are around 170
million Dalits in India, the success
stories - most of them
are tales of rags to riches - indicate that in the
new India, Dalits can begin hoping to figure in
Fortune's list of millionaires.
at the bottom of India's millennia-old caste
hierarchy. They have suffered intense
discrimination for centuries, excluded from
education and public life and allowed employment
only in "dirty" jobs such as cleaning toilets,
skinning cows, digging graves, etc. So dirty were
Dalits in the eyes of the upper castes that even
the shadow of a Dalit falling on an upper-caste
person was considered to be polluting.
Consequently, Dalits lived far away from
upper-caste settlements. Dalit villages were
located so that the air from there would not blow
into upper caste homes. They were not allowed into
restaurants, temples or other public places. They
were forbidden from carrying umbrellas, wearing
footwear, shirts or sunglasses.
in 1950, Independent India banned the practice of
"Untouchability" ie the social, physical and
political exclusion of Dalits, and followed it up
with the Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989 and
sought to improve literacy and economic well-being
of the community through quotas in education and
government employment, Dalits continue to suffer
severe discrimination and are targets of horrific
violence unleashed by dominant castes.
Dalits constitute the overwhelming
majority of India's poor, illiterate and hungry. A
mere 30.1% of Dalits are literate today compared
with the Indian average of 75%. Discrimination
against Dalit children in schools forces them to
drop out; the Dalit dropout rate is almost 50%.
Dalits constitute the bulk of India's landless
laborers, its unemployed and underpaid. In India,
cleaning of toilets is still a task that only
It is the context of continuing
exclusion and ill-treatment of Dalits that makes
the emergence and rise of Dalit capitalists all
the more spectacular.
In the two decades
since India began liberalizing its economy, the
number of millionaires and billionaires in the
country has grown phenomenally. In 2011, India had
55 (dollar) billionaires, six more than the
previous year. Two Indians figure among the 10
richest in the world.
The emergence of
Dalit millionaires is a far more dramatic
development than that of millionaires in other
communities. After all most of them are first
Take Ashok Khade,
for instance. Born in a mud hut in Ped village in
Maharashtra, Khade belonged to a family of
Chamars, a Dalit subcaste that is among the lowest
in the caste hierarchy. One of six children of a
poor, illiterate cobbler, Khade's childhood was
the typical Dalit story of exclusion.
young adult, he worked at the dockyard by day and
studied for a diploma in engineering by night,
sleeping under staircases as he could not afford
to pay rent for a home. Today, the 56-year-old is
a millionaire, heading the $100-million DAS
Offshore Engineering, an oil rig engineering
company with 4,500 people on its payrolls.
Most of the Dalit millionaires have
similar stories tell. Their rise to riches was
against all odds.
By setting up their own
enterprises and investing capital in them, Dalit
entrepreneurs are signaling that they are not
averse to risk. Several are unwilling to take a
chance on discrimination by their dominant caste
colleagues. Aware of the reality out there, some
have changed or dropped their surnames if these
reveal their Dalit origin.
entrepreneurs now they want to help others in the
Some are hiring Dalits in their
companies. They are also trying to remove hurdles
that they encountered when they were starting off
as aspiring entrepreneurs.
One such hurdle
is access to capital. Although there are
government institutions such as the National
Scheduled Caste Finance and Development
Corporation, that extends loans to Dalits, these
loans are small and given in installments.
Besides, existing funding mechanisms are largely
against collateral. This means they are beyond the
reach of a large number of aspiring Dalit
entrepreneurs, DICCI's chairman Milind Kamble
This prompted DICCI to set up
a US$100 million venture capital fund for Dalits
last year that is scheduled to open up for
business in a few months. Several Dalit
millionaires including Khade and Kamble have
contributed to this fund.
which has pitched in to help aspiring Dalit
entrepreneurs is the Confederation of Indian
Industry. Last year it agreed to work with DICCI
to increase sourcing of goods and services from
Dalit entrepreneurs by 10-20%.
of some Dalit entrepreneurs, their entry into the
exclusive millionaire club is often attributed to
opportunities opened up by economic
A recent study by the
Center for the Advanced Study of India of the
University of Pennsylvania covering 19,071 Dalit
households in Bilaria Ganj block in Azamgarh
district and Khurja block in Bulandshahr district
(both in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh)
found that Dalit lifestyles have undergone
"massive changes" since 1990.
In terms of
asset ownership, for instance, between 1990 and
2007, the proportion of Dalit households in the
sample with a television set jumped from 0.9% to
22% in Azamgarh and 0.7% to 45% in Bulandshahr.
The study found a "very substantial improvement in
housing" with 64.4% and 94.6% in Azamgarh and
Bulandshahr respectively reporting they now live
in pakka (concrete) housing compared to
18.1% and 38.4% respectively in 1990.
are unwilling to attribute the improvement in the
Dalit situation to economic liberalization.
"Behavioral and lifestyle changes are natural with
time and circumstances," Vivek Kumar, sociology
professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in
New Delhi, told The Mint, a business daily.
Others argue that the Dalit situation has
in fact worsened with the state increasingly
pulling out of health, education, etc since 1990.
Denied of subsidies and safety nets that were
available pre-1990, Dalits are running into huge
debts to pay for healthcare or worse.
Analysts like P Sainath have drawn
attention to economic liberalization's impact for
India's poorest, the bulk of who are Dalits. This
impact has been brutal especially for those in
agriculture, which is where most Dalits are
employed. Over the past 15 years, over a quarter
million farmers - most of them are likely to be
Dalits - have committed suicide on account of
Thus not all of India's
Dalits have any reason to celebrate
liberalization. In fact the majority are not. The
phenomenon of Dalit millionaires after all is
hardly representative of the Dalit reality.
While liberalization of India's economy
has facilitated the emergence of Dalit
millionaires, the significant role of literacy and
political empowerment - the rise of Dalit politics
coincided with liberalization - cannot be ignored.
A common feature of the Dalit millionaires is that
they have had some education.
education provided the foundation, liberalization
opened up opportunity.
Ramachandran is an independent
journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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