Although the Indian caste system was outlawed in the 1950s, even today caste discrimination is still rife in Indian society. The position of many Dalits, who occupy the lowest rungs of the social ladder, continues to be quite desperate. But there are exceptions to the rule. Kalpana Saroj is a Dalit, who was once an abused child bride but later became the head a multi-million dollar company.
Most Dalits, or “untouchables”, are condemned to illiteracy, poverty, doing dirty and dangerous jobs nobody else dares to take up. Even if you beat the odds and get an education for example, you’re still looked down on.
In August 2011, South Asia Wired featured Ms Saroj. Listen to the programme here (or click here)
“Dalit girls were called ‘little packets of poison’,” says Kalpana Saroj, remembering the days she was a young girl in a small Indian village. Her father was a policeman but as they came from the Dalit caste, there wasn’t any hope she would be able to climb the social ladder.
Instead, she was married off when she was twelve. “If I’d been from a different caste, this wouldn’t have happened,” Kalpana says. “I was doing well at school and I felt I had a lot of potential. I was only in grade seven at the time I got married.”
Life as a married girl was far from happy. “My inlaws were bad. Being with them in one house was worse than hell. They practically tortured me, a small 12-year old girl.”
Kalpana remembers regular beatings and threats to kill her if she didn’t abide by the family rules.
After six months, her father paid her visit. “He decided to take me with him,” she recalls. “They said he couldn’t. Then he showed up in his police uniform and we escaped back to my village.”
“People assumed there was something wrong with me as I didn’t stay married. I thought I had no future and that my family would be stigmatised because of me.”
She took drastic steps to relieve her family of shame and stigmas. She wanted to end her life, but her suicide attempt (by drinking rat poison) failed, after which Kalpana realised she had other options than killing herself.
“I thought: If I have to die one day anyway, why not do something really worth dying for?,” she says. “I promised myself there and then to do something so great that they wouldn’t be able to forget me after my death.”
Kalpana moved to the big city, Mumbai, to pursue her dreams. “I found a job in a clothing factory, earning 2 rupees a day. When the other tailors went out for lunch, I practiced sewing.”
She was eager to learn and that perseverance paid off – her boss soon gave her a raise and promoted her to other positions in the factory. She also formed a group of women who wanted to open their own businesses and after weeks of logging government officials for a loan, she succeeded.
“To cut a long story short, I made some money and was even able to buy and develop some land,” she says. “I’d developed a reputation that everything I touched, became a success. That’s why the owner of the land, who belonged to a higher caste than me, approached me.”
Kalpana was once again made aware that she belonged to the lowest caste. “People couldn’t understand why this man had sold his land to me, a low-born woman.”
The land deal paid off and Kalpana got the reputation of “the Dalit who dares”.
With more money to her disposal, Kalpana entered more business ventures. Her biggest move took place in 2006, when she took over Kamani Tubes, a producer of copper and brass tubes. Not only was this a big move, it was also – and primarily – a big risk.
It was an ailing business which was deep in debt (116 billion Rupees) and was embroiled in over 100 court cases. Hundreds of (former) employees were clamouring for their dues.
But Kalpana took up the challenge anyway. And she succeeded – she paid off the debts, she repaid the salaries of former employees which the company owed and she turned Kamani Tubes into a healthy, profit-making business.
“I was born a human being and I will die a human being,” she now says. “I’ve looked after my parents when they were old and ailing. I’ve helped my society and my caste. I think I’ll die having fulfilled my basic obligations as a human being and I’m happy about that.”
“And it feels good, of course,” she laughs. “Success always feels good!”.