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India’s boom creates openings for untouchables

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PED, India » On his barefoot trudge to school decades ago, a young Ashok Khade passed inescapable reminders of what he was: the well from which he was not allowed to drink; the temple where he was not permitted to worship. At school, he took his place on the floor in a part of the classroom built a step lower than the rest. Untouchables like him, considered to be spiritually and physically unclean, could not be permitted to pollute their upper-caste neighbors and classmates.

But on a recent afternoon, as Khade’s chauffeur guided his shimmering silver BMW sedan onto that same street in a village in the southern state of Maharashtra, village leaders rushed to greet him. He paid his respects at the temple, which he paid to rebuild. The untouchable boy had become golden, thanks to the newest god in the Indian pantheon: money.

As the founder of a successful offshore oil-rig engineering company, Khade is part of a tiny but growing class of millionaires from the Dalit population, the 200 million so-called untouchables who occupy the very lowest rung in Hinduism’s social hierarchy.

"I’ve gone from village to palace," said Khade, using his favorite phrase to describe his remarkable journey from the son of an illiterate cobbler in the 1960s to a wealthy business partner of Arab sheiks.

"This is a golden period for Dalits," said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist and researcher who has championed capitalism among the untouchables. "Because of the new market economy, material markers are replacing social markers. Dalits can buy rank in the market economy. 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."

Milind Kamble, a Dalit contractor based in the city of Pune in Maharashtra state, said that out of the 100 or so members of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in his city, only one was in business before 1991.

"We are fighting the caste system with capitalism," he said.

Bollywood may love a rags-to-riches plot, but historically India is not a nation of Horatio Alger stories. Social and economic mobility are limited, a product of India’s layers of cultural legacies: the Hindu caste system, the feudal and sometimes racial hierarchies established by lighter-skinned invaders, and the imperial bureaucracy imposed by Britain. The idea that with hard work and determination, anyone could succeed found scant purchase here.

Independence changed that somewhat. India’s Constitution, which was largely drafted by a Dalit, Bhimrao Ambedkar, outlawed the practice of physical untouchability, which relegated Dalits to the bottom of the social ladder and condemned them to low-status jobs, like leather work and barbering.

Dalits still lag behind the rest of India but have experienced gains as the country’s economy has expanded. A recent analysis of government survey data by economists at the University of British Columbia found that the wage gap between other castes and Dalits has decreased to 21 percent, down from 36 percent in 1983, less than the gap between white male and black male workers in the United States. The education gap has been halved.

Since 1991, when India’s economy opened to the world and began its astonishing growth trajectory, hundreds of thousands of new businesses have been created, leaving an opening for millions of people who never imagined that owning their own business was even possible. A small handful of Dalits were uniquely poised to take advantage.

Khade’s rags-to-riches story stands out because of how completely he transformed himself, with some luck and some help from India’s opening economy, from an illiterate cobbler’s son to a multimillionaire player in the booming oil services industry.

He was born in a mud hut in Ped in 1955, one of six children. His parents were day laborers who toiled in upper-caste farmers’ fields for pennies. His father would often travel to Mumbai, then known as Bombay, to work as a shoe repairman. He came from a family of Chamhars, a caste at the very bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. Their traditional job was to skin dead animals.

They were poor and always hungry. One day, his mother sent him to fetch a small bag of flour on credit from a nearby flour mill so she could cook flatbread for dinner. But it was the monsoon season and Ashok slipped in the mud. The precious flour landed in a puddle.

"I came home weeping," he said. "My mother was weeping. My brothers and sisters were hungry. There was nothing in the house."

But that hunger gave him drive.

"That was my starting day," he said.

Khade’s elder brother, Datta, had managed to get an apprenticeship as a welder at a government-owned ship building company, Mazagon Dock, in Mumbai. He persuaded young Ashok to move to the big city. Datta helped Ashok get a job as an apprentice draftsman at Mazagon Dock.

His flawless drafting skills and boundless appetite for hard work won him promotions. In 1983, he was sent to Germany to work on a submarine project.

One day, he happened to see the pay slip of one of his German colleagues. He earned in one month more than Khade earned in a year.

"I thought about my family’s needs," he said. "My sisters needed to get married. I knew I could do better than working for someone else."

When he returned from Germany, he began laying the groundwork to start his own company. The risk was enormous, and it was almost unheard of to leave a steady job to start a company. But his two brothers were expert offshore welders. They had good contacts from their years at Mazagon Dock.

Khade’s hunch was right, and his timing was impeccable. Faster growth meant India’s appetite for fossil fuels grew ever more rapacious. His company, which builds and refurbishes offshore oil rigs, has expanded rapidly and he is currently expanding beyond India to the Middle East. He recently signed a deal with a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi to work on oil wells there, and he is building what will be India’s biggest jetty fabrication yard on the Maharashtra coast, 14 hours by ship from Dubai.

He currently has 4,500 employees, and his company is valued at more than $100 million.

"An untouchable boy the business partner of a prince?" Khade said. "Who would believe that is possible?"

Khade probably would not be in business with a prince had he not attended a networking cocktail reception hosted by the Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai this year. There he met the Indian businessman who introduced him to the Arab sheik, who helped him to globalize his company.

Even for those who have had wild success in business, social acceptance has proved harder to attain. While wealth insulates them to some degree from lingering caste prejudice, barriers remain even for rich Dalits.

Even Khade, with all his wealth and newfound status, does not want to offend potential upper-caste clients. His business card reads Ashok K, leaving off the last name that reveals what he is: a Dalit.

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