Capitalism in India allows ‘untouchables’ to shed social shackles
India | Free markets create previously impossible opportunities for the subcontinent’s most marginalized
by Anna K. Poole
Posted 9/07/16, 05:30 pm
While Indian lawmakers wrote the country’s system of social stratification out of its constitution in 1950, the subcontinent has struggled to shake the remnants of caste-based prejudice.
In practice, many Indians are locked for life into their birth caste, making career changes and social mobility impossible. But in recent years, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push for industrialization, India’s job market is increasingly putting its money on personal productivity over family pedigree.
India’s Dalits, or “untouchables,” make up 17 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people and have traditionally been considered socially polluting because of their association with the dirtiest jobs: gutter cleaning, latrine wiping, corpse collecting. But as capitalist competition surges, individual caste identity dims, creating the perfect economic loophole for the “slumdog millionaire” to emerge in India’s free market.
“This is a golden period for Dalits,” Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist and researcher, told The New York Times. “India is moving from a caste-based to a class-based society, where if you have all the goodies in life and your bank account is booming, you are acceptable.”
Without the social deck stacked in their favor, some Dalits have redoubled efforts to excel.
“I responded [to discrimination] by deciding I had to be better than the others—cleverer, better dressed, better behaved, more successful,” Hari Pippal told The Guardian, recounting his childhood harassment in school. Though he now owns several successful companies, including a large private hospital near the Taj Mahal, Pippal still keeps his caste quiet. He named his first business with a wordplay—People’s Export—to dodge his decisively Dalit surname.
Sukesh Rajan, of the Musahar caste, offers another entrepreneurial success story, told by a recent Cato Institute report. The Musahar people, commonly called “rat-eaters,” fall even lower than Dalits on India’s social scale. But Rajan upended his dim economic future by marketing to his own caste, pioneering the sale of tiny spice bundles and food packets for day workers. More than 100 Indians now work for Rajan, according to the report, and he is looking to boost his sales into the multi-millions in the next half decade.
Fighting age-old social norms, many Dalits are still denied access to networking soirees and would-be entrepreneurial alliances. In an effort to remedy social exclusion, Milind Kamble, a Dalit engineer and entrepreneur, in 2005 founded the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), with the tagline, “Be Job Givers, Not Job Seekers.” The organization has since burgeoned to more than 3,000 members.
The Times of India encouraged local businessmen to invest in Dalit companies via a DICCI venture capital fund launched in 2013: “The aim is not to get donations from bleeding hearts for the needy … this is a vision of shared equality among castes.”
Only five or six Dalits have achieved billionaire status in India so far. But some say the trend of the “untouchable” tycoon is on the rise, and entrepreneurs like Kamble hope for 100 Dalit billionaires by 2026.
Anna K. Poole
Anna is a WORLD Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD correspondent.