On 2 January, members of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce (DICCI) met for dinner at the India International Centre, a venue usually reserved for the creamy layer of Indian society. The location was noteworthy. So was the company. DICCI members met with Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia to facilitate the awarding of more contracts to Dalit-owned firms.
Despite reservations and other government measures to encourage Dalit economic empowerment, India’s formal and informal centres of power (like IIC) remain an old boys club. “The Government buys goods and services from the open market, but those who are in that chain generally don’t allow new businesses in that chain,” says Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit intellectual and one of the leaders of DICCI, which was founded in 2005.
Milind Prahlad Kamble, who heads DICCI, agrees. “We are doing our own [work, but] the Government should push, so there [is greater] supply diversity,” Kamble says. “The Government should give some opportunities to Dalit businessmen, they are quite competent.”
Kamble’s own story is a good example. The son of a schoolteacher, he comes from an impoverished district in Maharashtra. He earned a civil engineering degree. After five years in the private sector, he started Fortune, a construction company, in 1995. It is now building roads, medians and tunnels for the Maharashtra government. “We have over 250 employees,” he says. “Out of that, 70 per cent come from schedule castes and 30 per cent from upper castes. The annual turnover is Rs 70 crore.” Kamble now hopes to expand his business into neighbouring states like Karnataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
The meeting seemed to yield some positive results. Ahluwalia said government policy on SC/ST empowerment should be enacted in consultation with these communities. “He also suggested we set up a venture capital fund for first-timers to start businesses,” Prasad says.
Still, Kamble makes it clear that DICCI isn’t looking for handouts. “We told him that sir we are contributing to the Indian GDP through taxes,” Milind says. “We are also giving employment to people.”
But he adds that there is still a long way to go. “The spirit of enterprise should be spread among all Dalit communities and people who are below the poverty line.”