x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A triumph over the caste system

India Dispatch: At the beginning of her life in India, the odds were against Kalpana Saroj, but she defied the unwritten rule that her entire existence was to be lived in the grinding poverty that is most often the lot of her country's so-called untouchables.

Kalpana Saroj, the chairman of Kamani Tubes, presides over a 5 billion rupee empire. Subhash Sharma for The National
Kalpana Saroj, the chairman of Kamani Tubes, presides over a 5 billion rupee empire. Subhash Sharma for The National

At 12, she was married off by her family to a man 10 years her senior. At 14, she dropped out of school. Even before she was an adult, she began working as a seamstress in a one-room slum shack in Mumbai, earning a daily wage of 2 rupees.

Today, she presides over a 5 billion rupee (Dh408 million) empire.

But Kalpana Saroj'srise is not an ordinary rags-to-riches story. She belongs to the Mahar caste, an impoverished community among India's Dalits, who traditionally worked as agricultural labourers, street sweepers and manual scavengers. They are a historically downtrodden community, oppressed for generations, and reviled as untouchables.

"She was once a shy village girl who had to walk 10km barefoot every day to reach her school," said Manan Gore, the managing director of Kamani Tubes, a metal tubing company that Ms Saroj, 50, acquired in 2006.

As Mr Gore lauded her in an interview at her plush office in a heritage building in Mumbai's Ballard Estate, she sat next to him in a swivel chair, wearing a beaming smile.

"And now look at her," he said. "She works out of the same enclave that houses the offices of India's richest man [Mukesh Ambani]."

India's rapidly growing economy has created a new breed of millionaires and billionaires in recent years, but the most spectacular rise is that of Dalits.

For centuries, India has been blighted by the Hindu caste system, a hereditary system that divides people into rigid classes that defined their social status, profession and income. Those at the lower rungs of this hierarchical social pyramid have endured extreme poverty and social disadvantage.

The indignities of caste violence and discrimination, which observers condemn as a kind of social leprosy, stubbornly persists in India despite rapid modernisation and brisk economic growth.

But the rise of a monied class among Dalits, celebrated as India's real slum dog millionaires, is inspiring hope of change.

The 30 richest Dalits, all first-generation entrepreneurs, are collectively worth 21.58bn rupees, according to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a lobby group in New Delhi dedicated to the community.

The fortunes of existing millionaires and the number of Dalits on the rich list is likely to grow rapidly as the economy offers new opportunities to the marginalised community, the chamber says.

Chandrabhan Prasad, a leading Dalit intellectual and writer based in New Delhi, says the success of Dalits is a sign of the loosening grip of the caste system.

"India's caste order is under great strain," he says. "Thanks to the new economic order, global interconnectivity, and new technology and tools, a caste-neutral society is slowly germinating."

India's caste system, created thousands of years ago in Hinduism, traditionally groups people in four broad classes: Brahmins or priestly caste; Kshatriyas, or warrior caste; Vaisya, or merchant caste; and Dalits, or manual labourers and scavengers.

The four broad groups are divided into thousands of sub-castes. The lower castes, mainly labourers, were considered "unclean" and treated as less than human.

The upper castes avoided skin contact or dining with them or even drawing water from the same wells for fear of "spiritual contamination".

Since independence, India has formally abolished caste discrimination, but it has not abolished caste as an identity.

Across cities, caste divisions seem to have been somewhat blurred, if not erased, by more apparent class divisions spawned by the economic boom. But many of the old prejudices still prevail, especially in rural India, where caste divisions are more entrenched.

In 2006, the national sample survey organisation (NSSO), a government-controlled statistical body, found that in rural areas, only 24 in every 1,000 males in the "other backward classes" (OBCs) categorygraduate from university.

OBCs are a marginalised group comprising 3,743 lower castes. For upper castes, 59 in every 1,000 rural males graduate from university.

In urban areas, 226 in every 1,000 upper caste males graduate compared with 89 among OBCs. OBCs make up about 36 per cent of India's 1.12 billion people.

Ms Saroj says she had to battle immense odds and prejudices to achieve her current success.

About 1970, after a failed marriage and an attempted suicide, she migrated to Mumbai from her poor village in the western state of Maharashtra.

After starting off as a seamstress, she took a loan of 40,000 rupees from a local bank to buy sewing machines and employed women for embroidery work. The money she earned was invested in a furniture business that flourished.

But she got her biggest opportunities in the property sector.

About a decade ago, she bought a tiny plot of land in Mumbai for a low price. It was a high-value property, but she faced obstinate tenants and the paperwork was mired in legal battles.

She doggedly pursued one government office after another, and eventually got the paperwork resolved. She erected a commercial-residential building on the property, which she called Kohinoor Plaza after the famous diamond that was found in India.

But during that time she caught wind of plans by a local land mafia don who had put a 500,000 rupee bounty on her head.

"He wanted my land," Ms Saroj remembers. "But I've faced so many problems, so many obstacles successfully. I wasn't going to be browbeaten so easily."

Ms Saroj tackled the threat with the help of the police. She sold Kohinoor Plaza in 2000 and invested the windfall in other land deals.

She remembers encountering caste-related slurs in some of her business dealings.

"It doesn't surprise me anymore when some businessmen, even the highly educated ones, say something like 'we cannot do business with an untouchable'," she says.

In 2006, Ms Saroj acquired Kamani Tubes, a company that had a debt burden of 1.16bn rupees and faced liquidation. The company was involved in more than 140 legal disputes, and its workers were clamouring for dues worth tens of millions of rupees that had not been paid for years.

"Everyone advised me to not buy this company," she says. "It's a sick unit. You'll never be able to revive it."

But revive she did.

Kamani Tubes this year became a debt-free company with an annual turnover of 5bn rupees.

Dalit millionaires such as Ms Saroj "serve as role models in society", says Mukul Wasnik, India's minister of social justice and empowerment. "She has emancipated herself from the bottom of the social order and done well by embracing opportunities that came her way."

With her hard-earned wealth, Ms Saroj has paid for the weddings of her younger brother and sister. She sent her daughter recently to study hotel management in London and her son to Germany to train as a pilot.

And she plans to buy a helicopter this year - a surprise for her son.

"Success does not depend on whether you are a Dalit or not," she says. "You can make your own destiny."