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Scaling caste walls with capitalism's ladders in India

Lydia Polgreen 

On his barefoot trudge to school decades ago, a young Ashok Khade passed inescapable reminders of what he was: the well from which he was not allowed to drink; the temple where he was not permitted to worship. At school, he took his place on the floor, in a part of the classroom built a step lower than the rest.

But on a recent afternoon, as Khade’s chauffeur guided his shimmering silver BMW sedan onto that same street in a village in the southern state of Maharashtra, village leaders rushed to greet him. He paid his respects at the temple, which he paid to rebuild. The untouchable boy had become golden, thanks to the newest god in the Indian pantheon: money.

As the founder of a successful offshore oil-rig engineering company, Khade is part of a tiny but growing class of millionaires from the Dalit population, the 200 million so-called untouchables who occupy the lowest rung in India’s hierarchy.

“I’ve gone from village to palace,” Khade exclaimed, using his favourite phrase to describe his remarkable journey from the son of an illiterate cobbler in the 1960s to a wealthy business partner of Arab sheiks.

The rapid growth that followed the opening of India’s economy in 1991 has widened the gulf between rich and poor, and some here have begun to blame liberalization for the rising tide of corruption. But the era of growth has also created something unthinkable a generation ago: a tiny but growing group of wealthy Dalit business people.

Some measure their fortunes in hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a handful, like Khade, have started worth tens of millions. With their new wealth they have also won a measure of social acceptance.

Milind Kamble, a Dalit contractor based in the city of Pune in Maharashtra State, said that out of the 100 or so members of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in his city, only one was in business before 1991.

“We are fighting the caste system with capitalism,” he said.

Knowledge-based businesses like information technology have attracted large numbers of Brahmins, the traditional learned caste. The business castes tended to focus more on retail and wholesale trade than manufacturing. Messy industries like construction are closer to the traditional occupations of the lowest castes.

Ashok Khade’s rags-to-riches story stands out because of how completely he transformed himself, with some luck and some help from India’s opening economy, from an illiterate cobbler’s son to a multimillionaire player in the booming oil services industry.

His timing was impeccable. Faster growth meant India’s appetite for fossil fuels grew ever more rapacious. His company, which builds and refurbishes offshore oil rigs, has expanded rapidly and he is expanding to West Asia. He recently signed a deal with a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi to work on oil wells there, and he is building what will be India’s biggest jetty fabrication yard on the Maharashtra coast. He has 4,500 employees, and his company is valued at more than $100 million.

“An untouchable boy the business partner of a prince?” Khade said. “Who would believe that is possible?”

Khade probably would not be in business with a prince had he not attended a networking cocktail reception hosted by the Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai this year. There he met the Indian businessman who introduced him to the Arab sheik, who helped him to globalise his company.

These kinds of connections are crucial to the nascent Dalit business community. Because Dalit businessmen often lack the social connections that lead to business ideas, loans and other support, a group of Dalit entrepreneurs created the chamber in 2005. It aims to build those networks so Dalit business leaders can help one another grow. The group has about 1,000 members, all of whom run with an annual turnover of at least $20,000.

It recently organised a meeting where Dalit businessmen pitched ideas to Tata Motors, one of India’s biggest car Kamble, the Dalit contractor, said of the 10 companies that attended, four had signed deals and four more were in negotiations. “There was a time when people like us could not even approach a company like Tata Motors,” he said. “Now we go meet them with dignity, not like beggars. We are job givers, not job seekers.”

©2011 The New York Times Service

First Published: Fri, December 23 2011. 00:41 IST