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From grinding poverty to the Padma Shri

February 04, 2013 08:18 IST

Kalpana Saroj and Milind Kamble, who will get the Padma Shri this year, are epitomes of a new resurgence in the Dalit community, writes Aditi Phadnis

When Kalpana Saroj, chairperson of Kamani Tubes, walks up to the President of India to receive her Padma Shri later this year, she will be wearing a diamond necklace and a Kanjeevaram sari. What she would really like is to be able to travel to Delhi in her own aircraft, but she isn’t sure purchase negotiations (which are going on) will be complete by then.

“What do you think?” she asks. Her voice is husky, almost contemplative, but she has an infectious giggle.

This is a woman who was born to grinding poverty in Akola in Maharashtra, was married at 12 although her burning ambition was to study, and ran away from abusive in-laws at 14 when they would not let her study beyond class 9. She lived in Mumbai earning Rs 2 a day doing small tailoring jobs. Today, the company she runs is worth Rs 68 crore, and her office is the room that was once the boardroom of the Kamani group, at Kamani Chambers, in Mumbai's Ballard Estate, a stone’s throw from the building that houses Mukesh Ambani.

She talks about the lowest point in her life when she tried to kill herself by drinking pesticide, because she didn’t want to face the taunts of villagers. “I left my in-laws’ home and came back to my father’s, because I was tired of being abused. But villagers thought I was at fault, it was something I had done. How could I explain? My father was a police havaldar, we had nothing. How was I going to live? I asked myself: why should I live?” she says.

But she was saved and set out to save herself. Tailoring jobs helped her earn enough to expand her business. A furniture shop joined her assets and she ploughed her savings into buying land that she later sold. Her big break was to buy a disputed piece of land which she nursed out of disputes, following the file through the corridors of Mumbai’s labyrinthine government departments tenaciously. She set up a business complex there called Kohinoor: in the dim hope that one day, she would be able to buy something close to the most valuable diamond in the world.

What caught her eye were large advertisements put by IDBI for the sale of Kamani Tubes in Kurla, set up by a venerable Gujarati family that was once right up there with the Tatas and Birlas. Designed to manufacture copper-alloy tubes and pipes, the unit closed down in 1985 but reopened in 1988 on a Supreme Court order and was handed over to a workers’ cooperative society. But the workers couldn’t run it either and in 1995, it was on the verge of liquidation, with even BIFR having thrown up its hands.

The workers came to her in 2005 and begged her to take it over. Many were Dalits. “The situation was so bad that they hadn’t been paid for months. Many had no money even for food and medicines. I felt I needed to do something,” she says.

She went to IDBI and they agreed to make her president. She had to start looking after the day-to-day management of the company immediately. The more she unravelled the company’s affairs, the deeper was her despair. “The company had no assets. The land it was standing on was rented. Its building housed government tenants who were paying rent of 25 paise and 50 paise a month. And for obvious reasons, no one wanted to touch the company until they got back what was already owed to them” she says. “We didn’t even have the money to hire security services to guard the machinery which was being stolen by the workers themselves as scrap to pay for food.”

Saroj’s priority was to secure trust -- of the workers, the creditors and lending agencies. A long slog followed with Saroj going from office to office, begging for a break, just one chance. She looks back with gratitude at all the help that did come. The red letter day was the day she retired the debt of the company. Some time last year, newspapers reported her meeting with the former owner, now in his 80s, Navinbhai Kamani. Saroj handed him a cheque for Rs 51 lakh -- his dues, including provident fund, as part of the restructuring of KTL.

“Navinbhai's financial condition was precarious; and I think the money did him some good,” she was quoted as saying. KTL may make a small book profit this year. The Kamani brand is selling in west Asia through Al Kamani in Kuwait and Kalpana Saroj LLC in Dubai to cater to the huge demand for copper tubes, especially from the water and sanitation sector.

Her daughter is studying hotel management in London and her son is training to become a pilot in the US. She plans to set up an aviation academy in Maharashtra, because there aren’t enough opportunities for Dalit children in India.

It is entrepreneurs like Kalpana Saroj that inspired Milind Kamble, Chairman and Managing Director of the Rs 100 crore-Fortune Construction, to give Dalit entrepreneurship a profile. Kamble started out as a sub-contractor; and success spurred him to focus on securing a share for Dalits in the nation's GDP. And so was born the Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

“I was perplexed by two questions -- I wondered why India Inc needs organisations like Ficci and CII. I saw Indian business houses strong enough to influence political leaders, government policies and guard their individual interests. I found the answer. To magnify the power of influence, a collection of individuals is a better way than individually addressing issues. Why shouldn’t Dalits follow the same path, was my next thought. As Dalits, with no previous history of business and trade and situated outside India’s social fabric, Dalit business persons needed a business body more than India Inc. Plus, when Dalits have so many organisations in so many fields -- from student bodies to political parties -- why not a business network?” Kamble said.

DICCI was born to break the old boys’ network of Ficci and CII. DICCI recently helped launch a venture capital fund with a Rs 100 crore corpus, underwritten by the Planning Commission. The first big function DICCI celebrated last year was at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel, a black-tie event where single malt flowed.

Capitalism will save the Dalits, says Chandrabhan Prasad, advisor to DICCI. Not everyone agrees, but Prasad says Dalits need to remember where they came from him. This is a story, in his own words, of his childhood of great poverty and want.

“At aged less than 10, I too joined the band of rat catchers. As per the tradition, only those who hunted rats had the right to eat rat meat. Since I was too young to hunt rats on my own, I would join the rat catchers and run around with them to justify my claim. I was given a bit of rat meat to eat -- often the baby rats. 

“The only Dalit meat, field rats were a great source of protein -- though we didn’t hunt rats with protein in mind. We waited for three seasons to arrive -- harvesting of wheat in April; harvesting of paddy in October; and the first rain in the final week of June as those are the main rat catching seasons.

There were two ways of hunting rats during harvesting season. Either we would dig the land following tunnels rats would make; or fill the tunnels with water. We carried digging instrument and buckets, both. If the land was dry -- more often in the month of April -- we deployed water to choke oxygen flow to the rats. Once the tunnels were filled with water drawn from nearby ponds, the rats would come out one by one. Before rats actually arrived, there would be signals of their arrival. The water at the top would develop movements and we would wait breathlessly. The moment a rat came out; either the animal would be caught by hand, or he would start running. We would chase rats with sticks in our hands. The rats were roasted in the field with a little salt and eaten there.

Once an upper caste friend of mine asked me a pointed question: why do you people continue eating rat and pig meat when your economic situation is so good now? I wish I had asked him: why am I asked to sit separately at public dinners at your place when the clothes I wear are as good as yours?" 

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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