A century after the Indian National Congress formally condemned untouchability and 68 years after the Constitution mandated affirmative action, India is still wrestling with The Dalit Question. Social tensions, such as the face-off between the Marathas and Mahars (two centuries after Bhima-Koregaon) continue to disrupt ‘samajik samrasta’. As every Indian acknowledges, social parity is still very much a work in progress.
Perhaps it would be heartening to look at Dalit assertion from another prism, that of economic mobility. “Defeat caste with capital,” Dalit entrepreneur Milind Kamble famously said, a decade after he founded the Dalit India Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Pune, along with eminent Dalit thinker Chandra Bhan Prasad.
Google guru reveals that Kamble, the son of a village school teacher of limited means, became an engineer and worked for five years before launching a construction company. It proved wildly successful and Kamble decided neither he nor any member of his family would take advantage of special privileges for Dalits. More than two-thirds of his employees belong to scheduled castes, which prompted the DICCI slogan, “Be job givers, not job seekers”.
Through DICCI, which now has 18 state chapters and five international, he fosters Dalit entrepreneurship. He also encourages members to provide employment for Dalits. Gen Next Dalits, he observed in an interview, were no longer willing to remain at the mercy of the political system. Around 15 per cent of the small and medium-sized enterprises in the country, he added, are Dalit-owned and at least a hundred of DICCI’s members have turnovers of Rs 100 core or more. One of his members is the redoubtable Kalpana Saroj, whose well-known rags-to-riches fairy tale is all the more poignant because she was a child bride and a school dropout. The Kamani Tubes chairperson transitioned from a slum kid to a suited-booted tycoon, who received the Padma Shri from Pranab Mukherjee in 2013, draped in a gold sari.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be in sync with Kamble’s suggestion. A couple of years ago, he told a group of Dalit entrepreneurs that Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar was a votary of industrialisation and Dalits, who by and large do not have farm land, would benefit from it. For industry opens the doors to entrepreneurship. Kamble’s contention that economic equality cannot wait on social equality is irrefutable. Economic progress for its own sake is not the sole objective; a successful business, however small, will boost the individual’s sense of self-worth and instil confidence, serving as a role model for the rest of the community.
Reservations have not done the trick. Atrocities against and exploitation of Dalits show no signs of ending despite nearly 70 years of reservation. It is infra digging to oppose quotas, but the recent spate of demands for a slice of reservation by forward communities makes it obvious that something has to give. Perhaps, in order to broad-base the benefits of reservation, it should be limited to one generation of each family. That is, a civil servant’s son who aspires to follow his parent must compete in the general category.
At the same time, caste violence must be ruthlessly addressed. Symbolic gestures and expressions of empathy cannot be a substitute for the rule of law. But, with reservation having yielded indifferent results, the suggestions by Kamble and his team at DICCI deserve a closer look. Wealth has no caste or colour and only economic parity holds the promise of enduring change.
If the BJP is serious about financial inclusion, existing schemes – such as the venture capital fund (VCF) for Dalit entrepreneurs – must be sincerely implemented. Sadly, business-as-usual laxity has plagued the VCF programme, which was intended to provide concessional finance for Dalit-led start-ups. The need for low-cost, adequate and accessible funding, without the usual bureaucratic rigmarole, has been acutely felt. It is a fact that Dalit entrepreneurs find it extremely difficult to get early-stage funding from banks and other financial institutions, for reasons that have everything to do with caste.
The Ministry of Social Justice had undertaken to ensure that no Dalit with a viable business proposal would be turned away empty-handed, regardless of whether or not he could offer collateral. But, by April of 2017, barely 67 projects had been sanctioned under the scheme. Also, the geographical distribution was uneven, with ‘progressive’ states getting the lion’s share.
There’s no denying that for every success story, there will be a hundred thousand waiting to happen. Every Dalit entrepreneur can aspire to be a Kalpana Saroj and just a handful may eventually get there. But, if the political system is to recognise Dalits as something other than vote banks, it is evident that quotas alone will not serve.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines.
She is now an independent writer and author.