Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ashok Kumar: Dalit Millionaire

This successful leather goods exporter is looking forward to the day when his son sets up their own showroom in New York

Buckled up Ashok Kumar with a model for his wares. Photo: Kumar Prithvi
For a man to start out able to afford only a cycle to go to work on to become the owner of a chauffeur-driven Honda City would betoken immense upward mobility. For a Dalit to do so, and do so by becoming a businessman, would also mean breaking through the shackles of occupational stratification that are fundamental to caste. There was, after all, a time when Chamars were meant to do no other work than dispose of the bodies of dead animals and Baniyas were the only ones who could trade. That has been changing over the decades. Heeding Ambedkar’s call to give up the demeaning profession, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh had left it en masse by the 1970s and Muslims had filled the space. But, by this time, some Chamars had prospered thanks to the British military’s demand for leather. In the industrial city of Kanpur today, there are a handful of Dalit entrepreneurs enjoying the fruits of the booming leather industry.

Among them is 46-year-old Ashok Kumar. His grandfather, used to make whips for the British (“With which they would flog Indians,” laughs a friend). Kumar’s father was a Grade IV employee with the Air Force — “I don’t know what he did there,” Kumar says. Of his four siblings, his elder brother, Lalta Prasad, had been able to set up a somewhat successful business, hiring workers to make saddlery. The manufacturing would be undertaken on commission by a local contractor who would then sell the goods to an exporter. All was going well until 1980, when Prasad died; Kumar’s father’s income was not enough to support the family. The business Prasad had established would have dwindled away, were it not for Kumar, who had failed his high school examination that year. Taking up his brother’s business, Kumar singlehandedly worked to turn it from a small enterprise to a big one. Today, his house dominates the Dalit basti he lives in; he has also been able to arrange the weddings of his two sisters — he himself got married in 1983.

But in the late 90s, Kumar’s poor education, and particularly his lack of English, threatened to hamper his business. Wishing to export directly rather than lose margins to local contractors, Kumar entered into a partnership in 1998 and the business began to yield a turnover of around Rs 3 crore. But the partners had a falling out recently; Kumar has been exporting on his own for a year now, with his college-going children helping him on the computer. His saddlery items go to Germany, Italy and the US — Kumar has never been to any of these places, but plans to go very soon. In fact, he dreams of the day when his son will have a showroom in New York which will sell saddlery under their own name. “India hardly has horses!” he says, “and who buys leather?” An entire saddlery set-up can sometimes cost up to Rs 1 lakh. On an average, Kumar’s goods cost around $125 per item to produce; they are eventually sold for thrice that amount.

Among the problems Kumar faces, he complains most not of caste but of bureaucratic impediments to importing leather not locally available, such as Argentine harness leather. Today, he has two workshops and over a hundred workers, most of them Dalits. His business is worth Rs 3 crore, he says, and is classified as a medium-scale industrial unit. Kanpur is filled with many such enterprises, but what sets Kumar apart is that he himself is a craftsman. “I can myself make all the things my workers make,” he says with pride, as he poses for the camera against one of the machines. Ask him if his pride in the dignity of labour has to do with the caste history of craftsmanship, he would say no. Caste’s got nothing to do with it. “It’s in the heart, a passion for work.”

Others in the industry had been happy making traditional ware, but against the financial pressures of the business Kumar takes out time and money to invest in innovation. Against all odds, he got raw hide made in India, doing away with the need to import it and thus bringing down costs. Another innovation of his, zebra braiding, has become popular with the Germans, who now want other factories to copy it. Chamars were once a community that skinned hide for a living. Today a ‘Chamar’ is giving everyone else a run for their money with the finished leather goods he exports. But let’s not talk caste, says Kumar, it is all hard work. He used to vote for the Congress and now does so for the Bahujan Samaj Party, but that is what all Dalits he knows do. “Mayawati gives tickets to people from the Scheduled Castes, that is all. But I don’t have the time to think about caste or politics — I sometimes work 18 hours a day. My only concern is how I am going to arrange the money to complete the next order.” As we leave, Kumar has one request. That handicraft bag of ours, if we would leave it behind, he will try to replicate it in leather. And yes, the first such bag he makes will be ours.


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