As India Inc grapples with the sceptre of job quotas for backward classes, some activists are trying to change the paradigm of the debate. Dalits should become entrepreneurs, Dalit scholar Chandrabhan Prasad tells Seetha, and the private sector can lend a helping hand by giving them preference in the supply chain.
# Do job reservations in the private sector have any relevance?
Dalits as a community should start thinking beyond working for others and start thinking of becoming businessmen and hiring others.
# Do they have a tradition of entrepreneurship?
There are many entrepreneurs, but they are small players. The only traditional business activity was leather processing. Most of those working in this area are in Agra and some have large companies. They prospered during World War Two, but post independence, the bania lobby took over the trade and Dalits have become sub-suppliers to them.
# How can Dalit entrepreneurship be fostered?
By integrating them in the supply chain. If the private sector has a problem with job reservations, why don't they start by making Dalits partners in the business by seeking supplies from them. Keep 5% or 10% outsourced services for Dalits. Hindustan Lever has 43,000 employees and two lakh dealers. Obviously, the latter is a larger pool and will create less displacement. Then there won't be so much social polarisation. It won't become an emotive issue.
I know someone working in a small factory making gear stick covers for Eicher tractors. This is sold to a wholesale dealer for Rs 5 a piece. He sells it to Eicher for Rs 10. If Eicher buys directly from a Dalit manufacturer, without compromising on quality, it can buy it for Rs 7.50. Both gain Rs 2.50.
Assuming a HLL dealer get a 1% commission, he can earn a minimum of over Rs 60 lakh a year. A Dalit can take up this dealership, taking less commission than others. Don't replace existing dealers, but when new dealerships are given out, reserve some for Dalits.
# So, they will need special privileges even here?
Yes, because the system of enterprise and trade requires traditional social networking. Dalits are not in the social loop. So industry has to make a conscious effort to bring them into the supply chain.
The American experience is so inspiring. Now, what 33 million Blacks spend annually in the market is equal to what 1 billion Indians produce annually. People say that affirmative action has saved the American economy because it has created a new class of aggressive consumers.
Similarly, if a Dalit is linked with HLL and Eicher, he will prosper and buy - not a Mercedes immediately - but a Maruti 800, a Videocon television and will build a house in his village. Whatever every empowered Dalit earns will go back to the market.
# Do Dalit entrepreneurs face discrimination in the market?
People may not practise untouchability. But if there is a manufacturer named C B Ram and another named C B Aggarwal, I will unconsciously start wondering and may opt for Aggarwal. It may not be deliberate. Many try to keep their identity hidden because of fear. The fear may be wrong but the very fact that it is there means there is some social basis for that.
# Dalit activists argue that the condition of Dalits has worsened post liberalisation.
They are right. Government downsizing after 1991 has hit Dalits very hard. With job reservations, they were assured of employment. That has stopped.
But instead of fighting liberalisation, Dalits must use it to their benefit. The fittest vehicle to get into mainstream society is the Indian rupee. Society will accept only empowered Dalits - wearing good clothes, living in good houses, exuding confidence.
# To become entrepreneurs, Dalits will need education, training which many of them don't have.
Lets start with areas where no formal education or complex skills are required. Dalits can start with this, earn enough to educate their children who will then not need reservations.
Coming together through business is much more reliable than any social reform law. The Dalit bourgeoisie will eliminate all social tensions. If the big industrialists understand this, it will be good.