I am at Nariman Point, the heart of corporate, super rich India. At a time when the talk is of inclusive growth, my guests today are two faces of genuinely inclusive growth in India: Milind Kamble, founder of Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), and Chandra Bhan Prasad, its mentor. Two Dalit leaders, who don’t claim to be victims, who don’t claim victimhood, and who don’t ask for doles, reservations, favours, no complaints. So, are you oddballs? Are you trying to change the script?
CHANDRA BHAN PRASAD: This has been the Dalit tradition—Ambedkar rose on his own, so did Guru Ravidas. There are thousands of such examples in history where Dalits have stood up and risen on their own. So there is nothing unusual about us. What has happened during the past 50 or 60 years is that the state’s welfare measures or methods or reservations got slightly misunderstood and also slightly misused by the “victims”.
Did it work well for the victims or not?
CBP: It worked well, but it has outlived its potential and power, now something else has to happen.
Milindji, you are charting a new course. You are organising Dalit entrepreneurs in this Dalit Chamber. Is there really a large enough number of Dalit entrepreneurs in India?
MILIND KAMBLE: Yes, there are. If I quote from the Census carried out by the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), 10 per cent of MSMEs registered with the Government of India are Dalit-owned, which is about 1,64,000 across the country. Most of us fall within the ambit of MSMEs, there are a few who have grown into large enterprises. That is the situation.
Who are the largest? Tell me about a few.
MK: The largest enterprise that is part of our Chamber is of Rajesh Saraiya, who is from Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh. He is currently based in Ukraine and his companies are registered in London, Ukraine and six other countries. He has a presence in Mumbai too. He is the biggest Dalit entrepreneur whose businesses have a turnover of Rs 2,000 crore.
That is almost half a billion dollars. Tell me about him.
CBP: He went to Russia on a scholarship to study engineering. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he did odd jobs to continue his education and after completing it, joined (Laxmi Niwas) Mittal’s steel company as a translator. He figured out the tricks of the trade and started dealing with steel, first with the Tatas. Today, he is worth over $400 million, owns four Mercedes Benz cars and is only in his forties. Then there is Kalpana Saroj who worked for Rs 5 a day in Mumbai in 1975 and today she owns Kamani Tubes.
I believe the silencer in the Tata Nano is produced by a Dalit entrepreneur.
MK: Yes, indeed. Not just the silencer, there are other parts as well. The perception that the country has about our community that…
…they are victims, the prey.
MK: There is a view that Dalits are the jamaais (sons-in-law) of the government. This is not true. As you said, there is (a Dalit entrepreneur) who makes silencers for the Nano, one Sushil Kumar in Ghaziabad supplies (motorcycle) stands to Hero, in Pune there is one Gokul Gaikwad who supplies parts for Tata Indigo, in Sangli there is Sadamate Industries which supplies parts to Forbes Marshall, to Bajaj.
CBP: Bajaj Pulsar has three parts supplied by Dalits. If they stop supplies to Bajaj, Hero, Honda, Tata Motors…
…the companies will close down.
CBP: No. The vehicles will stop running for want of parts.
MK: This way, we need to change perceptions.
You wish to change the story of
MK: Yes. Many have emerged from their circumstances and established businesses.
CBP: In Uttar Pradesh alone, 50 big hospitals are being run by Dalit doctors. Some of them were manual labourers in their childhood, during their high school and intermediate days.
The fact is, these Dalits became doctors because of reservations.
So we cannot undermine the value of affirmative action.
CBP: Certainly. Affirmative action has given Dalits a launch pad. A launch pad is a launch pad. You need that to take off. Ambedkar gave you the launch pad. Now don’t run on the launch pad, take off.
So are you saying economic reforms and globalisation have been positive developments for Dalits?
MK: We welcome it. It has been a very positive development in India’s economic growth story. Earlier, there were only few companies that used to make cars, two-wheelers and spares, because only they had the licence. As the licence raj was dismantled, new players entered the market. The existing firms had their vendor-base fixed, and the dealings used to happen only with them. As new players entered, there was a need for new vendors, new suppliers, a new supply chain and that is how more entrepreneurs got an opportunity.
CBP: Also, earlier there was a notion of one product under one roof. Because of economic reforms, globalisation, you can’t produce everything under one roof. You will have to outsource work. Most of the Dalit entrepreneurs of today are beneficiaries of outsourcing.
Outsourcing of manufacturing.
CBP: Yes. Along with globalisation came Adam Smith to challenge Manu. So that’s why for the first time, money has become bigger than caste.
So markets have become bigger than caste, bigger than Marx.
Yes. Bigger than caste, bigger than Marx, bigger than everybody because in this marketplace, only your ability is respected.
Chandra Bhanji, you say that money has challenged caste and Marx, and you spent your youth as a gun-toting Naxalite.
CBP: Yes…I think I was a fool.
You were an actual Naxalite, a part of the underground. Tell us that story.
CBP: I was a young man then, studying in JNU and I thought we must change India. Then, somebody said the gun is the best thing to overthrow the system, and I said I will be part of it.
And JNU is a place where the CPM is considered a dangerous right-wing party.
CBP: Yes…and I went in the field and saw violence is no way to change society. It is now outdated to have a view that a weapon or a people’s army can overthrow the present regime and trigger a revolution. So I got disillusioned and I thought everybody makes mistakes, and I too made a mistake.
You came back from there and made a complete turnaround?
CBP: Yes. Earlier, I completely went by ideas and thoughts that I was told. Later, I started thinking and saw changes. When I saw a Dalit in Bahadurgarh manufacturing cranes with a polytechnic training, I thought India is changing. When I saw a Dalit in Khurja running the biggest sweet shop and people buying sweets from him, while knowing he is Dalit, I thought India is changing. Now Dalits in several parts of India are running good restaurants. People are eating there. So I thought India is changing. So I thought let us go with the change.
Milindji, you came to the city, to Pune, started your venture. Were people still reminding you of your caste? Or were they ignoring your caste?
MK: In Maharashtra, your surname often gives away your caste. Look at my name: Milind Kamble. Kamble is a known Dalit surname. In the business I work in, construction…
…you have a turnover of Rs 80 crore.
MK: Yes, across all the businesses I am engaged in…So in the construction sector, over 80 per cent of the labour force belongs to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The work involves hard labour, which is possible only by us, which is why, we did not see discrimination.
…And you were an engineer, an added qualification.
Let me put this metaphorically. If market is a better equaliser than Marx, is the market a better equaliser than Mayawati?
CBP: Most certainly. So far, we held a belief that only an individual can liberate society. Now we see that there is an economic process, that capitalism is changing caste much faster than any human being. Therefore, in capitalism versus caste, there is a battle going on and Dalits should look at capitalism as a crusader against caste.
…As a force multiplier.
CBP: Yes. Dalits don’t succeed in villages. Dalits don’t succeed in traditional trades where you have a wide gadda and a white pillow. That’s why we say bring in FDI in retail and destroy this traditional system where Dalits can’t even step in.
This caste-denominated monopoly over money and over transactional benefits…
CBP: Yes. That is why I say, what man failed to do, capitalism is doing. Let us go with capitalism that is changing caste faster than your reforms.
Milindji, you speak of empowerment and that June 6, the day on which we are recording this, is going to be a turning point in the history of Dalit evolution. Why do you say so?
MK: Today, we are launching our own venture capital fund of Rs 500 crore and it will be an alternative fund registered with SEBI. This is India’s first social impact fund that will cater exclusively to enterprises run by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. We, the entrepreneurs from the community, are endeavouring to make a mark on the business landscape—and many are making a mark. Today is a day when we are making a mark on the country’s capital markets.
Your slogan is, Dalits should become job givers, not job seekers.
CBP: And every follower of Bhimrao Ambedkar should become job givers, not job seekers.
Tell me, how did the two of you meet? Chandrabhanji is from a backward region in Uttar Pradesh—Azamgarh—and Milindji is from Maharashtra.
CBP: I went to him and saw that he had formed DICCI and is uniting Dalit entrepreneurs nationwide. His interest was that there should be business advocacy among Dalits. I have only one interest: to survey Dalit entrepreneurs and calculate the tax they pay the government and show that the taxes they pay are far greater than the money the government spends on the welfare of the Dalits. I asked him, can I join you? And I joined him.
When I heard you say that—as I also have my mind conditioned by stereotypes—I thought you were about to say that all the tax Dalit entrepreneurs pay the government, should be spent back on Dalits.
CBP: We are saying that Dalit entrepreneurs are giving more in taxes to the state than what the state is spending on Dalits. We want to prove this. I am not a businessman, I am a writer. That’s how we came together. Our interests match. The nation should know that Dalits are not only takers, they are givers.
Did people laugh at you when you started this (DICCI)?
MK: Yes. When we began this, people felt that he is out of his mind. What is this SC/ST chamber of commerce and industry? Can there be anything like that? Can people from our community become businessmen? This was the mindset then and people laughed at me. During the period 2003-2005, we formed DICCI. In 2010, we organised our first trade fair in Pune. It was then that we got the attention of the media and word spread nation-wide that Dalit entrepreneurs have formed a forum. Last year, we organised a trade fair in Mumbai, at the Bandra-Kurla Complex.
For non-Mumbaikars, BKC is the new banking district of India.
MK: Yes. We organised a trade fair in which 150 Dalit businessmen from all over the country exhibited. Adi Godrej was present at the inauguration and among the visitors were Ratan Tata, Sushilkumar Shinde and Sharad Pawar and many others. After that, those who laughed at me and doubted my endeavour, even the Dalit entrepreneurs who used to hide their caste until then, when they saw that DICCI had forged an alliance with Corporate India—50 corporates came there—the hesitation ended and today it has become a platform throughout the country. There are DICCI chapters in 17 states, and our membership has swelled to 3,000.
Chandra Bhanji, you are a traveller, an analyst, a writer, a scholar. Do you see Dalits and even tribals changing as you go through the countryside?
CBP: Yes, the biggest change that has occurred and which I thought would never happen in this country—that food sources have become common for Dalits and upper castes. Earlier, Dalits mainly ate millets…
…what is called coarse grain
CBP: That was a low social marker—this is Dalit food or cattle feed. Now Dalits and upper castes and OBCs have common sources of food—wheat and rice. And jeans and T-shirts have become new weapons of emancipation. I see in villages Dalit youth sporting jeans and T-shirts. Something is happening in the countryside. Dressing well, eating well. They are also migrating from the countryside to cities like Mumbai and Aurangabad and Ahmedabad and elsewhere. Something new is going to happen in a month or two. A big Indian company is going to form a joint venture with a Dalit entrepreneur to produce a common product. This will shake the old consciousness. This would show how India is integrating, how a new process has started.
…And how capitalism is achieving what Marx and Mayawati could not?
CBP: Yes. Capitalism cannot survive without finishing feudalism and destroying caste. It is in the interest of capitalism to destroy caste, and that is happening, whether we like it or not.
You keep saying that the ideological mentor of DICCI is Montek Singh Ahluwalia. That will alarm many people because he is supposed to be a man of the Washington Consensus—anti-poverty, anti-poor, etc.
CBP: Montek is a friend of Adam Smith and Adam Smith is an enemy of Manu, so therefore, Montek is our friend.
Enemy’s enemy is your friend. What happens to this discourse on poverty—that you need a direct attack on poverty, that poverty is the problem, poverty is there forever, poverty has not come down…?
CBP: People who are working on poverty have a better life than people like us, because if you work on poverty, then you fly. You work on poverty, you live in five-star hotels. If you work on poverty, you are in touch with big foreign funding agencies. So, talking poverty makes you strong, makes you rich.
I say sometimes in my cynical moments that we Indians have invented a new ideology, it’s called povertarianism. And then central principle of that ideology is that poverty is my birth right and I shall make sure you have it.
CBP: The benefits are enormous. The fellow who sells poverty himself leads a rich life.
Now your alma mater, JNU, is the Dalal Street of poverty, rather povertarianism.
CBP: JNU creates people who see every human being incapable of rising on his own. That is JNU’s DNA.
Milindji, If JNU is the Dalal Street of poverty, you are now aiming for this (the real) Dalal Street. Where does the inspiration come from?
MK: The inspiration behind DICCI is the economic thought of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. The second is the black capitalism in America.
It says so in your mission statement.
MK: Yes. I asked my friend how was it possible that Barack Obama could be President of the United States? A black man in the White House! So he told me, there are thousands of “business Obamas”, that is why you have one Obama in the White House. There are thousands of black entrepreneurs in the United States who have made their presence felt on Wall Street. Till the day Dalit entrepreneurs make their presence felt on Dalal Street, let growth be how much ever it is, it won’t be sustainable.
Nobody could have put it better than that. Milindji, thank you very much, it has been so inspirational to have this conversation with you. Chandra Bhanji, you are a wonderful mentor. Fortunately, you picked the right cause. Had you stayed on with Naxalites, you might have been a bigger problem there.