When we talk about ‘rags-to-riches’ stories in India, one hurdle that does not often get a mention is caste. For Dalits, particularly, the role caste plays in an upward economic mobility is significant.
(Successful entrepreneurs Kalpana Saroj receiving a Padma Shri on the left and Ravi Kumar Narra on the right)
At every stage of their lives, Dalits are met with structural discrimination from accessing health, education to economic opportunities. While reservations have given them a shot in the arm for upward social mobility via government jobs, many are still left behind doing menial jobs and remain shackled to their caste-based occupation. Another avenue of upward social mobility is self-employment, but that has its challenges such as lack of access to formal capital.
Aditi Narayani Paswan, an assistant professor at the University of Delhi, writes for The Indian Express: “As per the reports by the MSME ministry, Dalit-owned ventures are still minimal in terms of numbers as well as revenue. Micro studies conducted all over India show that Dalits are still indentured to their traditional caste-assigned occupations, which are usually manual and low-paying. Those Dalits who consider taking up self-employment are hindered by the fear of social discord and losing any potential subcaste networks that might provide them with mutual insurance.”
Despite these cricumstances, there have been Dalit entrepreneurs who have overcome incredible odds to run successful enterprises. In addition to their own resilience and acumen, they stand on the shoulders of giants like Dr BR Ambedkar, who made “several attempts to remove the evils associated with caste and purity that create restricted circumstances for entrepreneurship development”, notes Dr Chakradhar Baldeo Indurkar, in a 2017 paper.
Paying homage to Dr Ambedkar’s legacy on his 65th death anniversary, here is a compilation of 5 Dalit entrepreneurs who’ve made it despite the incredible odds stacked against them:
As a woman and Dalit—two constituencies which barely find any representation in mainstream discourse—her rise to success has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Born in a village in Akola district, Maharashtra, Kalpana was married off at the age 12 into a household where she was tasked with cooking and cleaning. Unwilling to live that way, her father brought her back home within six months of marriage. Besides enduring the stigma many women face for returning to her parents’ home after marriage, she dropped out of school, endured rejection from various jobs and even attempted suicide.
At 15, she moved to Mumbai where she worked at a hosiery shop before opening her own boutique, starting her own construction company and buying a flailing company called Kamini Tubes in 2006.
Today, she has seven successful companies to her name with a net worth of more than Rs 1,000 crores. In 2013, she was even awarded the Padma Shri for Trade and Industry.
Despite being a bright student, the son of a cobbler from Ped village in Sangli district, Maharashtra, lacked access to electricity and nutrition. For Khade and his five siblings, hunger was an everyday reality they couldn’t escape.
Despite his circumstances, he finished high school, following which he came to Mumbai to live with his uncle and work at the Mazgaon Dock. For about 17 years, he worked at the government-run shipyard, where he built a career and network before starting his own enterprise DAS Offshore, an offshore fabrication company, which employs more than 4,500 people and an annual turnover of Rs 500 crore, according to this publication.
As this 2016 Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) profile on Ashok Khade claims, “They (his caste community) were given separate water to drink… But he holds no grouse against the villagers and has in fact restored the village temple – the same premises where his ancestors were forbidden entry. Today he visits his native village Ped in his BMW, driving along the same tracks where he walked barefoot 40 years ago.”
Today, he runs several businesses spread across multiple sectors, including international shipping and logistics, corrugated packaging, packaged drinking water, real estate and wellness across Bengaluru and Mumbai, of which the largest has an annual turnover of Rs 60 crore.
From a remote village in Karnataka, Raj Nayak’s parents had migrated to Bengaluru, where they lived in poverty. At 17, inspired by an Amitabh Bachchan film, he ran away to Mumbai in his desire to make it big. When his venture failed, he came back home, but continued to hustle, selling T-shirts and footwear on the streets of Bengaluru. Today, he runs ventures like Akshay Enterprises, Skyline Infra Realty Pvt Ltd, Jala Beverages Pvt Ltd and Nayak Power Systems.
Ravi Kumar Narra
Born to a daily wage mason and a maid in a slum near the Secunderabad railway station, Telangana, Ravi Kumar strived hard to finish high school and obtain degrees in law, journalism, science and public policy while doing odd jobs. In fact, in college, he struggled to speak in English given that he had studied in a Telugu-medium school till Class 10.
Today, he runs a variety of enterprises ranging from real estate to logistics. He heads a group of companies which provides direct employment to 900 people. Besides business, he founded the Shanti Chakra Foundation, which assists Dalit entrepreneurs. Last year, he was made National President of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), which promotes business leadership amongst SC-ST communities. In 2014, he became the first Dalit entrepreneur to be awarded the Padma Shri for his contributions to industry from South India.
From Buldhana in rural Maharashtra, Bhagwan Gawai’s family migrated to Mumbai where he worked alongside his mother and brothers on different construction sites as a labourer. His family worked extremely hard to ensure Bhagwan got a decent education and got a job in HPCL after school. Suffering multiple instances of caste discrimination, he packed his bags for Bahrain in 1991, where joined Emirates National Oil Company Group (ENOC).
In 2003, alongside an Arab business partner, he started a venture, which had a peak turnover of USD 400 million. His partner would soon quit the business owing to a death in the family, following which Bhagwan launched Saurabh Energy DMCC, a Dubai-based oil and energy company, in 2008-09, which has a turnover in millions of dollars.
Today, he’s a millionaire, many times over, and supports other Dalit entrepreneurs as well.
These are only a few examples of Dalit entrepreneurs who have broken multiple glass ceilings to run successful enterprises that have generated jobs for thousands. However, the success of some does not mean the incredible barriers that caste creates for other members of Scheduled Caste communities have fallen or that economic liberalisation is a panacea for discrimination. Moreover, the term ‘Dalit’ is not a homogenous category but includes a multiplicity of different caste groups that the government has classified as Scheduled Castes (SC).
“It is important to recognise the symbolic importance of Dalits making their mark in the world of business, for such an accomplishment breaks the casteist myth that an individual born into a Dalit family doesn’t possess the ability to helm anything political, administrative or economic. But the capitalist approach to put an end to casteism is erroneous. Yes, economic reform has led to some success stories among the Dalits but that should not lead us to believe that globalization and capitalism will drive away casteism from society,” notes this October 2017 essay published in the Forward Press.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)