Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rags to Riches: From Rickshaw Puller to Hospital

As a Class IX student, Hari Kishen Pippal pulled a rickshaw at night, hoping
to fund his education after his shoemaker father was laid low by paralysis. Now
the 56-year-old Dalit owns a state-of-the-art hospital in the Taj Mahal town.

In these parts of western Uttar Pradesh, several Dalit entrepreneurs run hotels,
own factories, even beer bars. But nobody had tried to set up a multi-speciality
hospital before. "I initially thought whether a non-medico like me would be able
to run a hospital. I also wondered whether my caste would be a hurdle. But I
decided to go ahead anyway," says Pippal.

The hospital also employs five Dalit doctors, the entrepreneur's proactive
effort to encourage medicos from his own community. "I want to prove that given
an opportunity, they can be as good, if not better than the rest," says Pippal,
who never went to college but speaks six languages: Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi,
English, German and Russian.

Even non-Dalit doctors working at Heritage hospital maintain it is a great place
to work. "Someone told me, you are a Brahmin, why are you working there? I told
him, I am a doctor and for me, caste is not a factor," says Gaurav Sharma.

Pippal's journey from a single 10 feet by 12 feet home in a shabby basti to a
plush home in the town's upscale Lawyer's Colony - " I have nine
air-conditioners," he declares — is the kind of story that inspires filmmakers.
He started working at his father-in-law's small shoe factory with six workers.
By 1980, he had set up his own company with a bank loan of Rs 20,000. "I named
it People's Export since it sounds the same as my surname," he says. The
entrepreneur admits he didn't want to give out his surname fearing people
wouldn't like to buy his product.

The Dalit entrepreneur made his first million manufacturing and exporting shoes
to countries such as Bulgaria, Russia and Germany. He even supplied Hush Puppies
to Bata. "Thomas Bata visited my factory three times," he says.

But he lost money and shut shop when Germany was unified and east Europe went
through turmoil in the early 90s. He then ran a restaurant and a banquet hall
successfully for sometime. "I ensured that the banquet hall was clean and
well-maintained. It was very successful. The hall hosted many upper-caste
weddings," he says.

Now along with a motorcycle dealership and the hospital, Pippal is aiming to
relaunch his shoes business. "My factory will offer free lunch to all workers,"
he says. The group's overall turnover is around Rs 20 crore.

Pippal feels that most government programmes hardly benefit the schedule castes
due to corruption and leakage in the system. It worries him that the financial
gap between the 'higher' castes and the scheduled castes is increasing every
day. The entrepreneur believes the disparity can be bridged by providing high
stipends to poor students.

"A Dalit student's scholarship should be equivalent to a clerk's salary. He can
study only if he is able to take care of his family," says Pippal.

Then the entrepreneur adds:
"The world is ready to bow before you. But you have to work hard to make it happen."



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