Even a Dalit millionaire in India can’t buy a house for his mother in the ‘upper caste’ part of her village, or see his son marry an ‘upper caste’ girl. Despite the economic success of a small fraction of India’s Dalits, discrimination prevails and a top economist argues that in fact discrimination and repression are what underpin India’s economic growth, forcing the majority of Dalits into low paid and insecure labour situations.

Recently there have been a number of stories in the international media about so-called ‘untouchable millionaires’, Dalits who have fought against the caste system to climb to the economic top tier of Indian society. While it is encouraging that even a small fraction of Dalits are finding a way to improve the economic situation that was prescribed to them at birth many of these new millionaires warn that this should not be seen as a trend or as dismantling the Indian caste system. In fact, Hari Pippal, a Dalit millionaire who owns a large successful private hospital, a shoe factory, a dealership and a restaurant, believes that as India grows richer caste divisions are in fact becoming more pronounced, not less.

“As a rule India’s economic boom is only enjoyed by high-caste people. This is a great tragedy for India, because so much talent is being excluded,” Pippal says.

Even with his millionaire status Pippal still experiences caste discrimination explaining that when his son fell in love with an ‘upper caste’ girl, 100 members of her community showed up on his doorstep threatening to kill her parents if the two were to marry.

Another Dalit millionaire, Ashok Kade, Head of a $32 million construction business in Mumbai explains,

“I have bought 100 acres of farmland. I built a palace in the Dalit quarters of the village for my mother, but I still cannot build a house in the heart of the village, where the upper castes live. They won’t sell that land to a Dalit. That will take another revolution.”

Unfortunately this revolution to stop discrimination seems to be getting no closer as India grows richer. Although recent statistics from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) find that India Inc. Employs 18% Dalits, the President of the CII, Vice-Chairman of Tata Steel Mr. B. Muthuraman, explains that most of the Dalits are employed in very low grade jobs and their numbers in managerial and other higher posts are minimal or negligible.

This statement is echoed by Surinder Jodkha, a Sociololy Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who has conducted a study of first-generation Dalit entrepreneurs.

“There are of course [Dalits] who are doing very well,” Jodhka comments, “But the absolute numbers in proportion to the Dalit population is statistically insignificant. To see it as a trend or something which is going to become a routine thing is an overstatement.”

In a recent comment piece, one of the world’s leading economists, Jayati Ghosh, who is a professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a member of the National Knowledge Commission advising the Prime Minister of India, in fact argues that this system of discrimination that keeps Dalits in the lowest level of occupation is what is underpinning India’s economic growth.

Ghosh says that, “A large number of social practices effectively restrict the economic activity of “lower caste” and Dalit groups and force them to supply very low wage labour in harsh and usually precarious conditions.” She argues that caste discrimination constricts the choice of occupation available to Dalits to an extent where they are forced to accept extremely low wages and otherwise unacceptable working conditions. Some Dalits are even forced into unpaid or slave labour as a result of this discrimination. She also explains that there is hardly any form of worker protection, job security or other benefits for the vast majority of Dalit workers.

Nonetheless, many of India’s new Dalit Millionaires such as Pippal and Kade are doing what they can to try to help Dalits by employing them in their companies, building schools and roads and funding grants for Dalit students.  In a recent article in Boston’s global post three Dalit millionaires, who are members of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, describe how they had to fight against all odds to get to where they are and that if there is to be any hope to uplift Dalits more generally India’s system of job and education quotas must be continued and perhaps expanded to also incorporate business loans and advantages in the tender process for government contracts.

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More information:

See IDSN’s section on caste and business and CSR

Read about the Ambekar Principles: employment principles and additional principles to address economic and social exclusion of Dalits in South Asia

Read about the Dalit Discrimination Check: a tool developed specifically to help companies prevent discrimination and exploitation of Dalits in their Indian operations and suppliers 

This article is based on the following articles:

Capitalism in India, especially its globally integrated variant, has used modes of social discrimination and exclusion to advance itself (Frontline – Jayati Ghosh)

India’s untouchables make millions (Global Post – Jason Overdorf)

India’s Untouchable Millionaire: Entrepreneur who escaped the rigid caste system warns that it is becoming more divisive as India grows richer (The Guardian/ Observer – Amelia Gentleman )

New millionaires hope to serve as role models for India’s lower caste (The Washington Post – Rama Lakshmi)

CII survey says India Inc. Employs 18% Dalits (The Hindu – Divya Trivedi)