by Chandrabhan Prasad
The Dalits constitute one-fourth of India’s population – about 250 million people – equivalent to the combined populations of four European nations (255.10 million): France (58m), UK (58.30m), Germany (81.60m) and Italy (57.20m).
In these four nations, they probably have thousands of billionaires. India, too, has its own share of millionaires and billionaires. But does any Dalit fit into the above categories? Is any Dalit a member of the CII or does any Dalit run an office from Nariman Point or own a showroom at Connaught Place?
Dalits possess hardly any wealth. And there is a history behind their current story. In their 3,000 years of exclusion, the Dalits were not entitled to any wealth and kept as prisoners of war on the very margins of agrarian India. Modernity set its foot on the subcontinent with the arrival of the British and India evolved into a Republic with their sad departure. Five decades have passed since then but Varna society still endorses its antiquated doctrine of exclusion. The result stands before us all: Dalits have no stake in India’s wealth but are expected by progressives and the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch alike to protect India’s wealth and business interests from the forces of imperialism.
But the people who expect us to join them in protecting India’s wealth or in “imperialism-bashing” have never argued for sharing India’s wealth with the Dalits. Making the Dalits partners in India’s wealth, with the help of bank loans or credit facilities through SC/ST Finance Development Corporations, have been failed experiences. With limited credit facilities, Dalit entrepreneurs never emerge as successful competitors.
A huge sum of money is required to stay afloat in any market, which the Dalits are not able to afford. The experience of Black entrepreneurs in their early days in America had been much the same. We often come across government functionaries asking for advice on how to empower the Dalits economically. We then tell them of our schemes – in reply to which they talk about “capital” constraints. Then we cite the American experience of supplier and dealer diversity, where Government or private corporate houses, as a matter of policy, purchase goods and services from Black traders and manufacturers. In India, as elsewhere in the world, manufacturing goods is no big deal. What is crucial, however, is marketing. Similarly, opening up a shop is a lot less difficult than securing an assured customer base.
Governments all over the world spend billions on buying goods and services from the open market. If the Government of India, which also buys goods and services worth billions of rupees, decides to earmark say 22.5 per cent of all its procurements from Dalit traders and manufacturers, hundreds of Dalit traders and manufacturers would turn successful in less than a decade. And in this exercise, no additional funds are required. The Government could buy a Compaq PC from a Dalit trader at the same approved MRP rate as elsewhere in the market without losing any additional money. The margin money will then go to Dalit traders, rather than people who don’t really need it. The same holds true for Maruti Udyog or Hero Honda or Bajaj Scooters for that matter.
But there is one problem. Only in order to push our case – where a Government, without spending any additional money, could help turn Dalits into successful traders and manufacturers – do we we cite the US experience. We have been expecting the support of the kind hearted Varna-intelligentsia which seems to “demonstrate” its progressive commitments more often than not. Most of them, however, are now extending their support only reluctantly. They think that nothing good can happen in an “imperialistic” country and hence, citing the American example, amounts to legitimising American imperialism.
There is one other problem. Many people are sceptical of the need for a wealthy, industrialist, business class amongst the Dalits as they too may exploit other people. To this, we have only the following to say: we want our share in India’s wealth, we want a bourgeoisie to emerge from within the Dalits. It is better to be exploited by the Dalit bourgeoisie than the Varna bourgeoisie. After all, the Varna bourgeoisie has never funded any Dalit movement. Dalit movements are funded by the Dalits themselves. And without a serious Dalit bourgeoisie, Dalits can hardly claim total emancipation.
Since Shri Digvijay Singh, who heads the MP government, gave the Dalit intelligentsia a forum from which to speak, a humble word of “thanks” is needed. The MP government’s decision to implement supplier diversity is a turning point in the Dalit movement and history will record it as such. Through Dalit Diary we reached the MP government and for that, I thank Chandan Mitra. I dedicate this column to Dr Amar Singh of the IAS who facilitated this mega-exercise and rekindled hope. May the voice of the Bhopal Conference find its echoes in each Dalit mind.