Monday, August 1, 2011

Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurship: Sanjay Kshirsagar

Reaching Sanjay Kshirsagar's office in suburban Malad in Mumbai takes some effort. Steep, serpentine lanes lead to his office at Kokanipada in Kurar village. Shanties and small houses line both sides, intermittently punctuated by tall, modern concrete structures. It's a rather unusual setting for the headquarters of an established high-end sound systems manufacturer, a construction business, and an upcoming packaged-water franchisee.

In his office, far from the steeland-glass districts of Bandra and Parel, Kshirsagar, 42, has come full circle. Brought up in a dalit middle-class family, he reminisces about the small chawl room close by where he and his younger brother, Satish, were brought up. "My father was an honest government employee," he says.

"In those days, an officer not accepting bribes couldn't afford to buy a new house." Thus, for over 30 years, the Kshirsagars lived in the chawl room. He remembers the poor hygiene of the common toilets and the long queues for water. "That is no way to live. People here deserve a better quality of life," he says, elaborating on the driving force that made him empanel his real-estate firm for a scheme to redevelop Mumbai slums.

Riding on the wave of dalit capitalism in India Inc, Kshirsagar is also the incumbent Mumbai chapter head of Dalit India Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) - a grouping of dalit entrepreneurs. His life's journey questions as many stereotypes as it replays the story of any seasoned, wellnetworked businessman.

FIRST SOUNDS

Interestingly, Kshirsagar tracks down his entrepreneurial instincts to studying in an Englishmedium school, which, he says, offered a level-playing ground. "That was a good decision by my father," he remembers. The "vernacular culture" is too restrictive , he adds. Here, he laboured hard, unfettered by the pressures of his native society. Kshirsagar's first business - something, he claims, is a continuing passion - was to make sound speakers.

Sound engineering came naturally to this physics graduate from National College, Bandra, where his professor would inspire students to work on real-life projects. After graduation, this academic activity turned into a profession for Kshirsagar and classmate Claron D'Souza . "Claron's had liberal ideas on entrepreneurship and employment," Kshirsagar says.

"I found that new and refreshing," he says, comparing it to his relatively conservative upbringing. Kshirsagar says the 'dalit attitude' is to stick to what is there and not explore, and he found liberation from these constricting thoughts with his cosmopolitan friend. In 1996, the friendship bloomed into business, with the duo launchingSound Concepts -- a brand of speakers that continues to sell this day.

The brand serves a niche audience: the speakers are high-end , made-toorder and expensive. In 2000, the partnership fell apart. D'Souza took up a corporate job, and Kshirsagar retained ownership of the brand and its high-profile clients. "In a way, it was his (D'Souza's ) baby that I kept," he says.


"But that is how it is." One of his clients, today, is industrialistKumar Mangalam Birla, who wanted a solution to his 56" television screen obstructing the sea view in his drawing room. "I said I would solve the problem. But, in turn, you have to buy my speaker setup ," says Kshirsagar. Birla agreed and arranged for him to meet Rajni Kothari, the Birla household's interior designer. "That day was Ambedkar Jayanti and I got stuck in traffic at Dadar. It took me two hours to reach, and Mr Birla waited for me. It was a rare, ironic moment of dalit pride," he smiles. Now, the TV rolls up when not required.

NEW BUSINESS BLOCKS

Slum redevelopment was not on Kshirsagar's mind for a long time till he contested the 2002 municipal elections as an independent candidate from Kurar. Accordingly, his biggest agenda was to herald in the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) -- a measure he continues to see as the only way forward for this congested, hilly locality bordered by the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and fraught with incidences of petty crime.

"Redevelopment is the key to improving quality of life in this area," he says. Losing the elections catapulted Kshirsagar into becoming an SRS developer. After college in 1993, he had also worked on lighting and sound projects for Crompton Greaves with expert civil and electrical engineers. Those contacts came in handy in his new construction foray. Kshirsagar launched APA Infraventure in July 2007 along with Atul Prabhu, an architect. Initial funding came from foreign angel investors, he claims.

For the rest, he plans to approach a nationalised bank. Despite earlier rejections, Kshirsagar now seems optimistic about getting the loan. APA has a land bank of 16 acres in Kurar and acquiring this was the biggest task, he says. The economic slowdown of 2008 temporarily halted his plans, but APA now has six projects for residential high-rise apartments on offer.

This is unusual as most developers tend to develop one or two properties at a time, introducing new projects only after the previous ones earn revenue . "Sanjay thinks big. He decided to concentrate all the resources into all his projects at once," says Rajesh Londhe, senior architect at APA.

NO RESERVATIONS

Historically, SRS has been fraught with political meddling . Slums form large vote banks, and since there's no investment by the Government, politicians are known to go the extra mile in claiming credit for SRS developments. According to the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) website , Malad East has 14 SRS projects proposed by nine developers.

"There is a heavy density of slums here, making it a lucrative place to develop," says Suresh Bharadkar, a director of Mauli Sai Developers, which introduced SRS projects in Kurar in 2004. Competition for land is intense. "Most of my competitors have used immense political clout to grab land for development," says Kshirsagar.

He himself denies receiving political assistance, insisting that he chose Kurar for emotional reasons. But he does confess to reveringNationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar as an inspiration . A large hardbound edition of Pawar's autobiography is propped up right behind Kshirsagar's desk.


"Pawar saheb combines politics and business well," he says. A close associate confirmed later that APA's SRS projects received occasional "support" from the party. Even as his SRS plans are underway , Kshirsagar is diversifying into bottling of drinking water. He recently won franchise rights for Eureka Forbes' upcoming packaged drinking water business. In all this, DICCI has been a helpful forum to build networks and his position in the community, Kshirsagar admits.

"Successful entrepreneurs , who have made it big, seldom talk humbly. In DICCI, you can talk to them as equals," he says, referring rather tacitly to the elitist nature of leading industry bodies in India. Ever mindful of his humble origins , Kshirsagar ensures his 125 employees are well taken care of. That includes serving them lunch everyday.

"They all travel a lot to come here. As they start early, many of them cannot get tiffins," he reasons. For the locals , Kshirsagar has also set up the Martand Bhairav Patpedhi, a co-operative credit society, and Indira Mahila Bachat, a womenonly savings scheme. In addition , he runs many small businesses in Kokanipada such as laundry, travel and security services where he employs locals.

Asked about reservation for dalits, Kshirsagar says only the needy should avail of it. "I will never allow my kids to apply through the SC/ST quota. Like me, they should fight it out in a fair manner," he says. It's time for lunch and Kshirsagar's wife waits impatiently outside to serve him his home-cooked meal. Stepping out, he washes his hands from a small bottle of water on to a patch of soil. Glancing across the locality he grew up in, Kshirsagar reveals that his mother's dream apartment building will get completed soon. A penthouse, it's coming up right where their old chawl once stood. The building has been christened, rather aptly , 'heaven' . The sense of liberation is almost complete.

A brief profile:

Sanjay Kshirsagar Sound Concepts; APA Infraventure

BUSINESS : Sound systems, construction

YEAR OF STARTING : 1996 (Sound Concepts); 2007 (APA Infraventure)

REVENUES : Rs 1 cr (Sound Concepts); Rs 100 cr expected for APA Infraventure after 5 yrs

EMPLOYEES : 125

Source: Economic Times

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