Dalits overcome caste barriers to become self-made entrepreneurs

The dehumanizing system of racial segregation that flourished in the American South from the end of Reconstruction through the 1970s has a friend in the former caste system in India. Both were callous, heartless, and cruel, and marginalized an oppressed people.

Segregation preyed upon African Americans through their melanic, sun-kissed skin; caste, cloaked in invisibility, encircled its victims through their birth, village, matrimony, or occupation. Dalits endured the most inglorious indignities, as they were ostracized from society, deemed unworthy of caste, and relegated “untouchable.”

The Indian Constitution of 1950 outlawed caste and “untouchability,” instituted protections for the Dalit community, and set aside proportional positions for them in government, electoral seats, and higher education. Caste as a social order in India is crumbling, but its remnants continue to impede Dalit prosperity.

In his new book, “Defying The Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs,” Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, tells the stories of 21 members of the Dalit community who have overcome societal and economic barriers to become successful, self-made businessmen. The book was co-authored by Kapur’s colleagues Shyam Babu and Chandra Bhan Prasad.

Entrepreneurs profiled in the book come from across India and work in a range of fields, such as manufacturing, construction, health care, and education. They were identified and surveyed in collaboration with the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Grit, says Kapur, is a common trait among the businessmen, in company with drive, hustle, ambition—and some luck. Many had parents who worked backbreaking hours in order to provide their children with an education, and siblings who took less to give one child more access to opportunities and potentially “pull up” the entire family.

KJN Enterprises, which specializes in recycling and disposing of industrial waste, was founded by Dalit Thomas Barnabas and employs more than 200 people. His father freed his family from a form of serfdom, which allowed Thomas to attend school. He worked as a successful marketing manager before venturing out on his own.

Kapur says the single biggest social hurdle in the Dalit community, which numbers around 200 million, is access to education.

“It fundamentally begins there,” he says. “You need some education. You don’t have to go to Penn to start a business, but you have to be literate, you have to acquire some skills in some areas.”

Other obstacles include class barriers that emanate from living in an impoverished area, such as lack of access to credit.

Several of the entrepreneurs began their path to social mobility by moving from rural India to metropolitan areas with better opportunities for business.

“The chaos and squalor of urban India provides at least a cloak of anonymity that keeps the possibility of individual initiative alive,” the authors write. “Anonymity increases risk taking since failure has less social costs.”

All but one of the entrepreneurs featured in the book are men. Kapur says Dalit women face the dual impediments of caste and gender discrimination. Women do, however, play an important role in supporting the men: Wives sell their jewelry and mothers relinquish their savings in order to provide start-up capital.

“Defying The Odds” is part of a larger research project examining the effects of markets on social institutions. India’s growing market economy, together with constitutional and political changes, has pried apart what the authors call the “iron grip of the old order,” and the scholars are studying the impact of capitalism on dismantling caste.

Kapur says that capitalism, while not altogether good or evil, is “a wrenching force” that has disrupted the caste system, just as the French Revolution reshaped feudalism in France, the Russian Revolution destroyed serfdom, and the U.S. Civil War ended slavery.

“[Capitalism] is not a pleasant force,” he says. “It’s very disruptive. But when you have an entrenched social system, only a disruptive force will change that system.”

Constitutional protections and political mobilization set in motion the process of integrating Dalits into mainstream Indian society. Kapur and colleagues argue that although the socioeconomic advantages of birth continue to play a large role in Indian life, market forces have further weakened caste by making the marker for status money and not birth.

“For Dalits,” they write, “the odds have shifted from the impossible to the improbable.”

The authors concede that there is no guarantee that the entrepreneurs highlighted in the book will excel and become business tycoons.

“Nonetheless,” they write, “they are a microcosm of large historical changes that are underfoot in India where a dehumanizing social system is slowly but surely giving way.”

Defying the Odds