From 'Untouchable' To CEO, Businesses Break Down Caste Barriers In India

Many of India’s 170 million Dalits still live as outcasts. Some of these so-called “untouchables,” however, have turned to entrepreneurship as a way out of poverty and social isolation. Portrait of a nation caught between ancient traditions and bustling i

The Dalits, among India's so-called 'Untouchables', have long been confined to poverty (Carol Mitchell)
The Dalits, among India's so-called 'Untouchables', have long been confined to poverty (Carol Mitchell)
Patrick de Jacquelot

MUMBAI -- When the Hindu temple in his hometown began falling apart, Ashok Khade agreed to pay for its reconstruction. He certainly had the means. Khade is CEO and co-owner – along with his brothers – of Das Offshore Engineering, a company that builds equipment for offshore rigs and boasts 20 million euros in annual sales.

Still, the decision was quite remarkable – for one simple reason: as a child, Khade hadn't been allowed inside the temple. Why? Because he's a Dalit, a member of India's "untouchable" caste. From those humblest of beginnings, Khade grew up to become the village's savior and benefactor. "I feel really successful!" he admits with a smile.

Khade belongs to a very small group of successful Dalit businessmen. But the number of companies founded and led by the men – and few women – of that community is growing, and these new CEOs want it to be known. With the help of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), these untouchable entrepreneurs are organizing a big business fair in Mumbai, India's financial capital. "We are going to show off our knowhow to Indian companies and to Indian society as a whole," says DICCI President Milind Kamble.

That Dalits can become millionaires by starting their own businesses is an astonishing phenomenon for Indian society. Heavily discriminated against, Dalits were until recently restricted to the least qualified jobs, like farming – without owning the land of course. The only other option was to work in the public sector, which starting in the second half of the 20th century, began allotting a certain number of slots to the so-called Scheduled Castes, or SCs.

Now, however, as India's economy is being redrawn along free market lines, both types of jobs are disappearing, according to Surinder Jodhka, a caste expert at the Nehru University in Dehli. With no other options available, some untouchables are trying to start businesses of their own. "For young Dalits the solution is often to raise 20,000 rupees (300 euros) and open a shop or a medical office," says Jodhka.

The case for affirmative action

The gradual modernization of the Indian economy has also increased the prestige of starting a business. Milind Kamble is a perfect example. "I'm the son of a small town teacher, in a family with no business tradition. My only advantage was that my family was educated," says Kamble. "When I got my engineering degree, my father really wanted me to get a job in the administration, but I said no. He was furious."

After several years as an employee, Kamble created his own civil engineering company. Today, Future Constructions brings in about 10 million euros per year and Kamble, who always supported the Dalit cause, became a champion of Dalit entrepreneurship. For him, their weapon is "capitalism against castism." Kamble believes the traditional caste system cannot survive in a modern economic environment.

"We were inspired by the American ‘affirmative action" policies," he says. "They had black businessmen before having Obama as president!"

Dr. Nanda K.K. describes himself as a pure product of India's own version of affirmative action. "When I was young, even when we had nothing to eat we would study," he recalls. "In the Andhra Pradesh, were I live, there was a system to push Dalits to study, and that's what helped me become a doctor. I had a reserved spot at the university, housing and a scholarship."

After working for 15 years as a small town doctor, Nanda – with the help of subsidies – opened a hospital in Hyderabad, the State capital. Today he manages a hospital with 150 beds and 15 specialized doctors and works on anti-AIDS programs with "Bill Gates Foundation grants." But he dismisses the idea that all this help actually made things too easy. "These programs allow us to have financial stability, that's all. We have to be good doctors in order to succeed," he says.

Still, starting a business remains very difficult for Dalits. "Business is done through networks, especially caste networks," says Surinder Jodhka. "Since Dalits are newcomers, they don't have these kinds of networks. That makes it much more difficult for them to get a loan from a supplier. Most often, they don't have any assets to put up as a guaranty for a bank loan. In other communities, you usually have land or property. There is still prejudice against them. People tend not to trust them."

To help the development of Dalit capitalism, the Indian government passed a long-awaited measure last month requiring the state and public companies to make 20% of their purchases from Indian businesses. A fifth of those purchases – 4% of the total – will have to be made from businesses belonging to SCs or STs (Scheduled Tribes – members of the country's old tribes.)

For Shandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit intellectual, it is a "historic" decision that will help the community's businessmen "enter the system." Indeed there is a lot of money at stake for these companies: 4% of public purchases represent more than a billion euros.

"At the beginning there won't be enough Dalit businesses to supply demand," says Digvijay Singhm, one of the leaders of the Congress party and former prime minister of Madhya Pradesh. "But newcomers will emerge to take advantage of the situation."

Resisting a call for quotas

Another often talked about measure involves requiring the private sector to hire quotas of outcasts. The idea, which was part of Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi's platform for the 2009 elections, has not been well received by the industry. "We really hope this will never happen. It would be completely inefficient," says Chandrajit Banerjee, the leader of the CII employers' union.

The idea has been floating around for years but major companies are working hard to prove that they are already pushing for Dalit integration and there is no need for government intervention. "The Tata group is a strong supporter of "affirmative action," says CII President B. Muthuraman, who also serves as vice-president for Tata Steel.

Muthuraman claims that 19% of Tata Steel employees are SCs or STs, a figure that corresponds roughly to their share of the population. None of the company's Dalits, however, have high ranking positions. "Not yet," he says. "The road is still long."

Ashok Khade's rags to riches story, in other words, remains something of an anomaly in India. But it's proof that changes are afoot. His success also gives young Dalits a reason to be more optimistic. "I am the first Indian to become the partner of an Abu Dhabi prince," says Khade, who created a joint venture with a group from the Emirates.

Read the original story in French

Photo - Carol Mitchell

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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