Plan panel mulls ways to spur Dalit capitalism

The government has begun discussions with Dalit entrepreneurs on what can be done to promote business ventures set up by members of their community.

As a part of its discussions with various groups before it finalizes the 12th Plan for 2012-17, the Planning Commission has sought suggestions from the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Dicci), a business group, on what can be done to spur Dalit capitalism, how these business ventures can be funded, and how Dalit voices can be heard while charting out policies.

Narendra Jadhav, a member of the panel, said a proposal to introduce executive development programmes for Dalit entrepreneurs at some of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) is also being considered. “(We are) very seriously contemplating the idea to have some kind of formal executive development programme for Dalit entrepreneurs. It can be outsourced to some of the IIMs. Most Dalit entrepreneurs have business skills, but they need polishing, particularly the younger ones. This will be considered, examined and polished in the 12th Plan. We will make a policy in this regard,” Jadhav said.

In a meeting held earlier this week, the planning body has also suggested that the chamber set up a venture capital fund to finance projects promoted by entrepreneurs born at the bottom of the caste pyramid and indicated that the government could consider picking up a stake in this fund, officials said.

The chamber will soon appoint a committee to formulate concrete suggestions. This is the first time that a Dalit business forum has been invited to make suggestions to the Plan panel.

“There are two things: one is promoting entrepreneurship that’s an end objective in itself. If there are difficulties faced by some communities, then you may need special interventions,” said Pronab Sen, principal adviser to the panel.

Jadhav said encouraging or creating situations for expansion of Dalit entrepreneurship also has an employment angle. “If there is a policy in this regard, it will also give fillip to employment of Dalits (by Dalit entrepreneurs). It is also about taking cognizance of the fact that there is a greater change taking place in society, and also about being open to voices from the ground while formulating the 12th Plan to make it more focused on the real issues from the ground,” he added.

Raising the funding limit for Dalit enterprises through the National Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Finance and Development Corporation (NSFDC), the apex government body for finance of small-scale businesses run by the weaker sections, is one of the suggestions Dicci made to the panel. The finance body grants a maximum loan of 7 lakh for Dalit businesses while its state wings mostly offer composite loans of a maximum amount of 50,000.

“Most government schemes for financing Dalit businesses expect them to be small-scale, such as buying cattle to set up a milking unit, or an autorickshaw. In the meeting between Dicci and the Plan panel, just one out of 35 Dalit entrepreneurs with businesses worth crores had availed of a loan from NSFDC and that 7 lakh loan took three years! Sadly, the government finds it difficult to believe that Dalits also could need a loan of 80 crore or so,” says Chandra Bhan Prasad, an independent Dalit activist and writer, who was a part of the Dicci delegation that met the Plan panel earlier this week.

The Plan panel’s deliberations with the Dalit business group seem to be guided by the changing socio-economic realities of India, and the steady rise of Dalit capitalism in particular. Considered the most underprivileged community in India, a section of Dalits are now engaging in large-scale businesses for the creation of wealth and employment that allow them an escape both from the demeaning tasks assigned to them by the caste system and the stigma of being branded as non-meritorious beneficiaries of reservations in education and employment.

“There are Dalit entrepreneurs who are into large-scale manufacturing and are also suppliers for government-run bodies such as the Indian Railways and the Delhi Metro, which proves that Dalit businesses are no less competitive and efficient than others,” said Milind Kamble, chairman of Dicci, who also attended the meeting.

The key demands that the chamber made to the Plan panel were to include Dalit entrepreneurs in priority-sector lending at special rates through institutions such as the Small Industries Development Bank of India and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. “We also asked for appointment of Dicci members on government panels, ministries and committees engaged in policymaking, just the way members from Ficci (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) are appointed,” Kamble said.

D. Shyam Babu, a fellow of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies in New Delhi whose research on Dalits and the new economic order has highlighted the social advance of the community in the wake of globalization, said government measures to promote Dalit capitalism will help create a Dalit bourgeoisie. “Most Dalit entrepreneurs face problems varying from difficulty in getting enough supplies on credit, lack of social networks, absence of kin groups in the business, and control of traditionally dominant business-caste groups. These, along with other social variables such as lack of social capital, make the Dalit situation more complicated and vulnerable to homogeneous categorization,” says Surinder S. Jodhka, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Jodhka’s paper, Dalits in Business: Self-Employed Scheduled Castes in Northwest India, drew insights on the expansion of private capital in India during the post-1991 period and highlighted the discrimination faced by Dalit businesses.

Prasad said the government should also formulate policies that favour grant of a certain number of tenders to Dalits. “Once Dalits are put in the supply chain, since the government is the biggest employer, discrimination in labour markets would also end,” he said.

First published in Mint.

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