Kailash Hotel is located near the Patna railway station. Not many know the owner of the 19-room hotel is a Kailash Paswan, a Dalit. "In our community, there is a ceremony - the really evolved walk on burning coals. I used to sell cucumber slices at the bus stand. My father earned a living sharpening knives and one day committed suicide when he couldn't take poverty anymore. I am afraid of nothing - and because of this, I am today the owner of a hotel. I've also started a technical institute to teach people mobile and laptop repairing. I've seen it all. So nothing frightens me," he says.
Paswan is the only Dalit entrepreneur in the services sector in Bihar. "I am self-taught, but I'm convinced I can teach others what I know. We, Dalits, have survived too long on handouts. It is now time to become independent," he says.
The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is yet to open a chapter in Bihar. But it is getting members fast. Most of them are owners of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and petrol pump dealerships - living testimony to the pattern of Dalit empowerment in Bihar: through government-sponsored affirmative action.
On the other hand, there are exceptions. Ramnish Jaideva owns a travel agency. He had a petrol pump but decided to branch out into a different area. He started business in 1995. "It was an uphill task. I would keep trying to get my travel agency empanelled. But the bureaucracy kept giving me the run-around, and would not empanel me on the basis of one specious excuse or another. Finally, I thought to myself, 'to hell with you. I will make a success of my business anyway.'"
Jaideva is not without influence. His sister is married to Sanjaya Paswan, a member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "Despite political connections, the resistance to let us, Dalits, enter closely guarded portals is so strong that you can keep knocking; nobody will let you in," says Guruprakash, Jaideva's highly articulate nephew who is interning with the India Foundation under BJP leader Ram Madhav.
There are several institutions. But the problem Dalit entrepreneurs face is a familiar one - access to capital. National Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Finance Development Corporation is supposed to lend them money on the basis of little or no collateral on easy terms. "The upper limit for the loan is Rs 25 lakh. But no one I know has got more than Rs 1 lakh," says Jaideva. "We want to create a new class of subaltern entrepreneurs," says Guruprakash. "That's the only way," he adds, "because although they are supposed to be there for us, I can't even get government officials to talk to me on the phone, let alone meet me."
Prashant is another Dalit entrepreneur who has an MBA degree and also began with an LPG distributorship, but is now in negotiation with the Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority to set up a unit that will produce maize starch. "I was working in a bank. I did an MBA from Pune. But my parents were ill and they died before I could reach here. So I decided to shift back home. My brother was a surgeon in All India Institute of Medical Sciences. We have never made use of our Dalit status. I persuaded him to move back to Patna as well. Setting up industry here is doubly difficult for me being a Dalit. There is no land, the rates are high, and there is no help from government. In theory, we are supposed to get loans without mortgage, but banks always ask for a mortgage," he says.
All Dalit entrepreneurs agree the fault is not only with the environment - it is also in their community and the way it thinks. "When I told my family I want to go into business, they were aghast. Why not get something from the government, they said. It is not just the environment that is holding us back - it is we ourselves. We are willing victims of the perception that because we are Dalit, we can't do business."
All those aspiring to become entrepreneurs have a uniform: all of them wear smartly tailored suits, mirror-polished shoes and sophisticated ties. In villages, Dalits would be wary of wearing new clothes, lest upper castes interpret that as a gesture of rebellion. But entrepreneurship is caste-neutral.