Zeher ki pudiya (little pocket of poison) is what Kalpana Saroj’s maternal uncle used to call her as a kid. A girl child is, after all, only a burden on her parents, he had said. Little did he anticipate that four decades later, the same little pocket of poison will emerge as one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in the country. At 56 years, Kalpana is now the chairperson of a company with an annual turnover of Rs 11.2 crore.
To the doyens of the corporate world, the turnover figure may seem miniscule but the glass ceilings that Kalpana had broken to reach here is a story worth repeating again and again.
As a Dalit woman growing up in Roparkheda village in Akola district, Kalpana’s caste and gender served as a double-edged sword in her journey to the top.
Kalpana is modest about her success. She says, “When we don’t propagate the good things that people do, why should I make an issue out of the bad things other people have done?” It’s not that simple, however, and Kalpana Saroj, a Dalit woman, would know this. In India’s deeply entrenched caste system, both women and Dalits rarely find representation in the mainstream discourse, often relegated to the lowest positions in every sphere.
A Harvard Business School study conducted in 2005 on caste and entrepreneurship in India found that only 9.8 per cent of enterprises are owned by Dalits, who constitute 16.4 per cent of the Indian population. According to Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, 96 per cent of these are small enterprises. Dalit women entrepreneurs are still rare to find. A 2011 report published in The New York Times notes that Dalit women entrepreneurs in Delhi make no more than Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000 a month.
Kalpana’s story began as a child bride. She was married off at the age of 12 into a household that looked at her as no more than a ‘housemaid to cook and clean, for free.’ She was brought home by her father within six months of her marriage.
“Baba’s support was everything. Even today when girls get married, most parents don’t want them to come back but when Baba saw how I was living there, he brought me back. If he didn’t support me that first time, my life would have been over right then,” she says about her father, Mahadeo, who worked as a police constable in the same village.
She had to endure the stigma, like all women who return to their parents’ home after marriage. Kalpana, initially, tried applying for various jobs — in nursing, in the police force and even in the military. However, passing Class X was a prerequisite for all the positions she had applied. The mental torture Kalpana was put through at her in-laws eventually saw her drop out of school. And then, one sultry afternoon, she downed poison. Kalpana’s aunt saved her in the nick of time.
The suicide attempt brought a formidable change in her. “The Kalpana before the suicide was very emotional and easily hurt. For her, there was nothing but darkness in life. When I got out of the hospital, I figured that if I have a life, it will have struggles and it is my job to face them. People will bad mouth me even after I’m dead, so I might as well live,” she said.
The next chapter of her life was no different, but this time she was prepared.
She couldn’t do much with farming, the only occupation available in the village. “And there were no factories in the village. I knew I had to get out to be able to work,” she says. With a strong resolve to succeed, Kalpana asked her mother if she could move to Mumbai. She threatened to commit suicide again, this time by lying on the train tracks, when her mother refused. “This girl has definitely gone mad, my mother said,” Kalpana recollects. “But she gave in. She wanted me to be alive at the very least.” Mumbai transformed the 15-year-old Kalpana, striving to work hard and become independent.
In the mid 90s, after working at a hosiery shop for a few months, she decided to open her own boutique. At work, Kalpana would often listen to the radio. This helped her secure a loan of Rs 50,000 after she learnt about government schemes for Dalits while tuning into a programme.
She used this money to start an NGO which is now known as Kalpana Saroj Foundation. “Having gone through the pain of not being able to find a job, I wanted to provide for as many others as I could,” she says.
Around the same time, a man came to her with a proposal to sell a parcel of land under litigation at a throwaway price of Rs 2.5 lakh. With that, she struck gold in more ways than one. Not only did the value of the land shoot up to Rs 50 lakh after the litigation was cleared, it also paved the path for her to enter the construction business in Mumbai. In a country where 45 percent of Dalit households are landless, according to the results of the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011,a Dalit woman was an interloper.
Kalpana’s celebration of this personal milestone was cut short in 1999, when she heard about the first supari (contract) on her head. Supari is a term that loosely translates to a sum of money given to a contract killer. The supari was given to finish this Dalit woman from a village from the “mainly men’s” construction business. Kalpana continued unscathed in the business till she bought a chunk of under litigation land from a Thakur man. Thakurs are upper caste Hindus who traditionally own huge tracts of agriculture land in northern India. The deal did not sit well with other Thakurs in the business as a Dalit woman, traditionally landless, bought land from a Thakur man.
“‘Humne kya choodiyan pehen li hain?’ (Have we worn bangles like women) a land dealer told the Thakur,” says Kalpana. Even though she put up several hoardings of her company, Kalpana Construction, on the land, got the building plan passed, the other Thakur land dealer tried to take it encroach on it through fraud. He got the land seller drunk and took his thumb impressions on a power of attorney document. Soon, a second supari was put on Kalpana’s head. “We had the paperwork so he could barely do anything; but this is the kind of treatment I received. They couldn’t stand a Dalit woman in the construction business,” says Kalpana.
In total Kalpana had three suparis on her head. “No one can hurt me on bit if I am not destined to die,” Kalpana says with a smile.
Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, believes that entrepreneurship boomed in India after the neo liberal economic reforms in 1991. He told the New York Times that out of the 100 members of DICCI, only one was in business before the liberalisation “We are fighting the caste system with capitalism,” says Kamble.
In 2006, Kalpana bought a company called Kamani Tubes after the company’s workers approached her for help. The company, set up in 1959 by Ramji H. Kamani, was unable to stay afloat and it found no buyers in the market. In 1988, the keys were handed over to the workers of the factory. Kalpana revived the company which catapulted her to worldwide fame by repaying the workers more than their share. “This did not go down well with the union leaders who despised me for my status,” she says.
Gautam Mody, the General Secretary of the Kamani Employees’ Union that represents the workers of Kamani Tubes points out that it was not such a fair deal for the workers as painted by Mrs Saroj. He says, “We have an award of the Industrial Tribunal at Mumbai for payment of Rs. 22.5 crores to 97 workers and Mrs Saroj is dragging her feet on implementing the award, trying to get it stayed by the HC, she’s been at it for two years. In fact, these 97 workers, 63 of them are living. She obstructed them from joining employment when she took over the company. It was under a direction of the Supreme Court that Kamani Tubes had to take the workers back. She violated the wage settlement between the union and the company, by under paying workers those who were relocated 80 kms away from the factory.”
Kalpana disagrees. She says, “I paid off all the workers more than what was due.” She says that her rise ‘did not go down well with the union leaders who despised me for my status.”
Today, Kalpana has made the journey from a Maruti 800 in 1997 to owning several cars now. She remarried sometime in 1980 – “see, I dont even remember the year” – at the age of 22 and had two children, who studied in Germany and London. If one asks about her husband, Samir Saroj, she only smiles. “I don’t think I can discuss that.”
Kalpana was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013 for Trade and Industry. She is now an inspiration to Dalit women who throng public venues to catch a glimpse of her in the hope of finding inspiration.
“I am addicted to my work. Earlier, my children used to complain why I have to be busy all the time. I had to explain to them that if I don’t do this, you wouldn’t have the luxuries that you do and we’d be on the streets,” she says.
Now, Kalpana intends to go back to her village in Akola and invest in farming and create job avenues for girls in the village. She finds her inspiration in Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the principal architect of Indian constitution and a Dalit social reformer.
“If Babasaheb ( Ambedkar) can go on to do what he did without the support that I had, I can do at least a percentage of what he accomplished. I have so much more support than him,” she says.
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