Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Breaking the caste barrier

In 1991, Siddhant changed his surname to avoid the shadow of caste discrimination. Today, the 31-year-old Dalit from Bihar's Ghorghat village owns a business with revenue of Rs1 crore

In 1999, at the age of 15, Siddhant Paswan became Siddhant Kumar. With just a few months to go for the secondary school board exams, he followed the example of his two elder brothers—he picked a neutral surname.

Hiding their identity was the Paswan brothers’ way of avoiding the shadow of caste discrimination when it came to joining the job queue. “What else was the option," says Kumar. They are Dalits, the lowest rung in Hinduism’s social hierarchy.

Kumar is 31 years old, nearly 6 feet tall, and has a body that looks gym-sculpted—a reason people in his village assumed he would join the army.

Last year, when Kumar visited his village, the upper castes wanted to know what he was doing in Delhi and whether completing higher education had done him any good. When Kumar told them that he was an entrepreneur and ran a business of his own, they smirked, thinking Kumar was lying and blew him off.

“Dalits don’t do business. This is not the traditional job that they are supposed to do, is what they told me," recalls Kumar. But the reality was they were shocked, slightly jealous, he says. At the most, they would expect a Dalit to set up his own neighbourhood corner shop, not run a business in one of the biggest cities in India.

While the majority of Dalits in village Ghorghat of Bihar’s Munger district are working in the Indian Railways, Kumar has a master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and is the founder of a start-up company designing and producing tabletop games.

Around three years old, the company employs seven people. From July 2014 to March 2015, Kumar’s FunRally Games had a turnover of 1 crore.

The decade after economic liberalization saw many Dalits move away from their traditional caste occupations,such as leather work, barbering and manual scavenging and choosing to work for themselves.

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“Post-liberalization, the country witnessed a transition from the caste-based occupations and services to modern businesses. Looking at so many self-made people from different communities across the country, aspirations among more and more people started rising, they started taking risks and are now competing with the market (irrespective of the caste)," says Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), an organization that brings together all the Dalit entrepreneurs in India under one umbrella.

According to DICCI, there are more than 30 Dalit crorepatis in the country.

Although, there is no reliable data on the profile of scheduled caste entrepreneurs, as per rough estimates of DICCI, there are 1,000 Dalit entrepreneurs with combined turnover of 60,000 crore.

When he was growing up, during all the village functions, Kumar and his family had to wait till the Brahmins had finished their meal and left—in case they “polluted" their neighbours’ food.

This happened despite Dalits being a majority caste in his village, about 150km from Patna, says Kumar.

Before his 12th class examination, Kumar and his friends rented a room for preparation away from the village. When they were looking for a room, the landlords they met kept asking about their caste.

They didn’t get a room.

It became so bad that Siddhant and his friends wore a janeu—the sacred thread that only Brahmins wear. “This was another way we used to hide our caste," Kumar laughs.

This is 2015 but the situation is still the same, he says.

Kumar didn’t want to blindly follow what everyone else from his caste did. For his father, fighting meant having heated discussions on the discrimination he faced and continues to face. For Kumar, fighting means to make it so big that no one asks him about the suffix of his name—and caste becomes irrelevant. “I can’t be dominated by anyone. I always felt like breaking away from the entanglement of caste. Unfortunately, still, every time I come home, I see the conversations are exactly the same. It’s all about caste," he says.

A study by New Delhi-based Indian Institute of Dalit Studies on what motivates Dalits to go into the business, the typical response is “doosron ki gulami se achha hai ki apna kaam kar lein" (it is far better to have one’s own business than to slave for someone else). For some of the respondents, business was also a way of proving to themselves they too could do something meaningful, which would not only give them income and dignity but also generate employment for other members of the community.

Kumar’s journey began with painting signboards, election banners, school walls. “I couldn’t define my ambition then. Growing up in a small village, with absolutely no exposure, I wasn’t sure where painting would take me," he says. He enrolled in a college for a Bachelor of Arts course but failed in the first year. Kumar didn’t even try to pass the exam and instead enrolled in Patna Arts College.

In his village, with almost 450 houses, and around 2,500 people, most men look for a job in Indian Railways, the nation’s biggest employer, as soon as they finish their 10th standard schooling. Women, without the pressure of getting a job, go in for higher education which, in turn, increases their marriage prospects.

“Everyone seems satisfied with what they have because they don’t want to take the risk of breaking free," says Kumar. “I have always wanted to fly."

Despite being in a college full of young people sharing a passion for the fine arts, Kumar, in his second year, realized every one else actually dreamt of securing a government job.

He didn’t want to do any of it. He was sure he had the skills for doing something better than painting people’s houses; he was confident he was good. “I thought if I am doing fine arts, why not do it in a good place," he says.

Using all of his pocket money, Kumar took a train to Delhi. There he sat for the entrance exam to Jamia Millia Islamia University’s Faculty Of Fine Arts and then went back home. When a friend called him to tell him that he had qualified, Kumar asked about the fees. Kumar has six siblings, and the only earner in his family then was his father. He worked in the railways, and took home a salary of 7,000.

When Kumar told his father about the 4,500 admission fees, he slapped him and told him he was not the only child he had to educate.

“Obviously, he had responsibilities, but I didn’t want to live my life doing what everyone around me was doing. The only people who made it big in my village were from the upper castes. Being there, with the caste hanging on me constantly, I couldn’t have progressed. I had to leave," says Kumar, admitting his mother had to sell her jewellery to send him to Delhi.

Despite having lived his life in a village, Kumar’s father wanted him to study but his earnings wouldn’t allow him to send Kumar to the city for education. “He did not want caste to decide our future like it did for him," he says.

A recent analysis of government survey data by economists at University of British Columbia found that the education gap between other castes and Dalits has halved between 1983 and 2005.

Kumar studied by day and painted walls and ceilings at night—earning 200 per day. Initially it was small scale, but since his drawing attracted attention and he networked, Kumar got more opportunity to work with interior designers. In his fourth year at Jamia, he started getting 2,000 per day and started getting more lucrative contracts. In his fourth year, he took the IIT entrance exam, cleared it and, with scholarships and savings, completed his masters in design from IIT Bombay.

One summer afternoon, seeing Kumar dressed up in formals, his professor asked what he was doing. Kumar was sitting for an interview. The professor didn’t say anything then, but later said: “You aren’t someone who should run after jobs, you should create jobs."

In rural India, in 33.7% of scheduled caste households, self employment is the major source of income, while in urban India, the proportion of households with self-employment as the major source of income among scheduled castes is 26.8%.

A 2011 paper by Harvard Business School found that even after the economic liberalization, Dalits “were significantly under-represented in the ownership of private enterprises, and employment generated by private enterprises."

Out of his batch of 60, Kumar became the only entrepreneur. With a friend from the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Bhopal, and another who was working at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Chennai, Kumar founded FunRally Games in November 2012.

The company designs board games, card games, dice-based games and miniature war games —mostly exploring how to use different concepts to make instructional games and reinvent the traditional games from villages.

“For one-and-a-half years, we had absolutely no money," he says. There were a few months when they had to stop working because they fell short of funds, by as little as 10,000.

“We had used every penny we had. There was no way we could move forward. Our parents’, our own money, everything was in it," says Kumar.

“While all entrepreneurs in India face obstacles because of lack of credit from the formal banking system, potential Dalit entrepreneurs are doubly handicapped because they almost invariably lack the collateral and also because of their more limited access to informal credit through community networks," according to the book Defying the Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs by Devesh Kapur, D.Shyam Babu and Chandra Bhan Prasad.

A few months later, when the team returned to work, they started going to traffic signals and selling their games because they didn’t have any human resource. It was Kumar who hit upon the idea of exploring e-commerce. Investing almost 10 lakh from savings, borrowed money from relatives and friends and two profitless years, from July, 2014 to March this year, the company has made a turnover of 1 crore.

Kumar says he is still struggling—for his identity, and to realize his dreams. He plans to launch his own mobile and mobile accessories company under the brand name Labho, a word in Angika language which means “take it".

It will be a Bihar-based company. “All we have here is from China. I will make the quality so good, and the prices so reasonable that we will find our place in the market and people will start trusting us," he says.

Even now when Kumar goes back home, he looks at the electric pole near his house with a banner he had painted as a teenager, directing everyone to the salon next door. And every time he looks at it, it strikes him that had he not moved out, he would probably have still been the man with a paintbrush, painting people’s houses.

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