Defying the Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs
By Devesh Kapur, D Shyam Babu and Chandra Bhan Prasad
Random House India, Rs299

The son of a cobbler and farm labourer in a rural area 400km from Mumbai, Ashok Khade grew up in extreme poverty, often hungry, and was barred from entering his village’s Hindu temple because he came from a leather-working caste viewed as “untouchable”.

Studying in Mumbai in the 1970s, Mr Khade could not even afford food at cheap roadside eateries for students, and instead travelled a two-hour round trip across town twice a day to his brother’s home to share their family meals.

Until India relaxed its stifling state control over the economy in 1991, the main route to economic progress for someone of Mr Khade’s disadvantaged background was a government job, and he duly took one at a state-owned enterprise that built ships and rigs for the Indian navy and oil and gas industry.

But today Mr Khade, 58, has achieved real prosperity through his own company, which fabricates offshore oil rigs and handles urban infrastructure projects. He is one of 21 business owners from the lowest rungs of Hinduism’s caste hierarchy whose compelling stories are recounted in Defying the Odds.

Through lively profiles of men (and one woman) with small and medium-size businesses in sectors such as food processing, construction and industrial recycling, the book offers fascinating, bottom-up insights into the gritty workings of India’s economy, and its twisting, bumpy roads to potential upward mobility.

Derived from interviews with subjects from the so-called Dalit caste and their closest relatives, these un­critical case studies do not pretend to assess their subjects through traditional prisms of business success such as the bottom line or long-term sustainability. Instead, success for these mostly first-generation entrepreneurs is inferred from their possession of Mercedes and other luxury cars, their accumulation of property, gold jewellery, socialising with members of other castes, and the costly western education – and pursuits such as filmmaking – of their children.

For the authors, led by Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania, these indicators have compelling logic. Most of the entrepreneurs experienced extreme deprivation in childhood, as their uneducated parents struggled to support families on meagre daily wages as maids, farm labourers or construction workers. Their memories of hunger, hum­iliation or struggle are still vivid.

In many cases the individual’s success reflects the efforts and sacrifices of entire families. A postman works a second job – late shift at a petrol station – to finance his son’s schooling. Children are withdrawn from school to support a promising sibling’s education.

At crucial junctures, outside support is also decisive. Murali Mohan, who exports gherkins, baby corn and other processed vegetables to western markets, was taken in by his high-caste secondary school teacher for three years so he could continue his education when his parents could not afford his daily bus fare to school.

Many of the book’s subjects find success in niches invisible to, or disdained by, their socio-economic superiors. An employee of a Pune pest control company spends his Sundays as a freelance rat killer for a commercial poultry farm – work his employer re­fused – and lays the foundation for his own industrial pest-control venture.

A rural migrant to the information technology boomtown of Hyderabad works as a nightwatchman then digs trenches for telecommunications cables, before becoming a labour broker, and finally a cable-laying contractor.

Few of the profiled subjects or companies are widely known to the broad Indian public and sadly they are all exceptional within their mostly still downtrodden communities. But with its vivid tales of clawing upwards from the bottom, Defying the Odds offers a highly readable and unusual perspective on the churning taking place at the Indian economy’s grassroots.

The writer is the FT’s South Asia Correspondent

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