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    South Asia
     Feb 16, 2012

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 their fortunes.

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.

While 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.

Dalits are 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.

Although 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 Dalits do.

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 generation illiterates.

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.

As a 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.

The successful entrepreneurs now they want to help others in the community.

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 pointed out.

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.

Another body 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%.

The success of some Dalit entrepreneurs, their entry into the exclusive millionaire club is often attributed to opportunities opened up by economic liberalization.

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.

Many 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 mounting debt.

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.

While education provided the foundation, liberalization opened up opportunity.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at sudha98@hotmail.com

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