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Economic boom proves a boon for the lowest of India’s caste system

Avinash Jagtap, a Dalit, once a caste of untouchables, makes cement pipes in Pune. India now has a robust Dalit middle class, including a growing number of business owners. Avinash Jagtap, a Dalit, once a caste of untouchables, makes cement pipes in Pune. India now has a robust Dalit middle class, including a growing number of business owners. (Rama Lakshmi/Washington Post)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post / April 21, 2011

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MUMBAI — Ashok Khade heads a flourishing $32 million construction business in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai. He employs 4,500 people, is building a dockyard for his company, drives a gray BMW, and wants to buy a helicopter next year.

The success of the 56-year-old Khade, a first-generation entrepreneur, is remarkable because he is a member of India’s Dalit caste, once known as untouchables in Hinduism’s rigid social hierarchy.

As a young boy, he lived the life of these “broken people,’’ facing crippling poverty and discrimination. He was not allowed to draw water from the village well, could not enter the temple and was forced to attend school in segregated classrooms.

But more than six decades of education programs and affirmative-action policies, coupled with India’s recent economic expansion, have begun to break the occupational ceiling that the ancient caste system imposed on Dalits. There is now a robust Dalit middle class of doctors, engineers, lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians, and a growing number of business owners such as Khade.

“In the world of business, success matters more than caste,’’ Khade said.

Khade started working as a technician in a Mumbai shipping yard in 1979 and studied engineering in the evenings. He quit his job in 1992 and used the salary from his last two months to start Das Offshore Engineering, designing and building unmanned offshore platforms for oil companies.

With their newfound economic clout, Dalit millionaires such as Khade are working to lower barriers and prejudice in their villages, funding grants for Dalit students, building schools and roads, and employing people of all castes in their businesses. They are also trying to showcase their success, hoping they will become role models for young Dalits and help them move beyond the dominant images of discrimination and despair.

“This is a proud moment, and we want to celebrate the success stories,’’ said Milind Kamble, 44, chairman of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “For too long, we have shouted angry slogans on the streets.’’

Kamble started out as a teenage activist with the Dalit Panther group, which was inspired by the Black Panther movement in the United States.

Today, encouraged by the rise of African-American entrepreneurs, he devours the American magazine Black Enterprise cover to cover.

His business group has 1,000 members, but that number is likely to double when registration begins in 10 more states across India in October. The chamber is also setting up a venture capital fund to encourage new entrepreneurs.

Many see a growing class of Dalit business owners as an important next step in the community’s transformation.

Not everyone is hailing the attention focused on Dalit millionaires. Some Dalits view the successful business owners as members of an elite club who have jettisoned the long fight on the ground against violence and discrimination.

“Maybe 10 percent of Dalits are doing well, but what about the rest who are rotting in poverty in villages and city slums? Can they relate to this campaign about wealthy Dalits?’’ said Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit activist and author. “It is an illusion that they can be role models.’

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