Reservations have benefited Dalits far more than globalisation, says academic Vivek Kumar
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Prof Vivek Kumar teaches at Delhi’s Jawaharlal University and has extensively researched the Dalit movement. In this interview to Scroll, he critiques the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry for claiming that globalisation has benefited Dalits, explains why it is little more than an exclusive club of rich Dalits whose engagement with the society is both self-serving and farcical, and challenges the credibility of a research project undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania. Excerpts:

What is the significance of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry or DICCI celebrating the 10th year of its existence with a national conference of Dalit entrepreneurs which Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed on December 29?They have tried to collect certain people who have arrived in the arena of what I would call petite bourgeoisie. They have made money on their own and are now trying to make a group. I don’t think they have made any significant contribution in the making of Dalit entrepreneurship or have made even a dent in the existing capitalist order. They are just another player in that order. I, therefore, don’t think this type of organisation has any viable significance.

Do you agree with DICCI members who never tire of asserting that capitalism can demolish caste?That is a far-fetched idea. The very nomenclature of DICCI – Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – shows caste has not been obliterated. The very fact that despite the economic mobility of its members (some of whom are multi-millionaires), they still have to wear the tag of natural identity is proof of my assertion.

Second, had caste been obliterated by capital, they would have been part of FICCI [Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry], not just been in DICCI. Had capital demolished caste, they would have been given space in different institutions of FICCI, which has 2.5 lakh members and 12 country offices. Since DICCI is a separate institution, it stigmatises its members.

In what sense does it stigmatise them?Capital has never had a natural identity of caste or religion or region. Capital has always been independent of these identities. The formation of DICCI has reified the caste identity which was getting obliterated as far as the market was concerned. By bringing 2,500 or 3,000 people together, they are being focussed upon as Dalit entrepreneurs. Earlier, their identities were blurred or mitigated in the larger identity of the market. DICCI has redefined the caste identity instead of obliterating it.

Why is this segregation a problem for you?The makers of the Indian Constitution wanted, and argued, for the mainstreaming of excluded communities. So what they did was not to create exclusive institutions for them. They made them a part of the larger institutions. For instance, they reserved a certain number of seats to make Dalits a part of polity. They were similarly made a part of bureaucracy and university. Reservation brought, and still brings, into the existing mainstream institutions Dalits who had been excluded from them for thousands of years.

But DICCI segregates Dalits. It doesn’t bring them into the mainstream. In the industrial system, once you make a separate chamber, it means you are not part of the system – you are separate. This implies that mainstream institutions or government will throw scraps at you. You will also not become a part of the whole. Is it in the spirit of the Indian Constitution to keep Dalits entrepreneurs as a separate entity? For the Prime Minister to address DICCI implies giving legitimacy to an identity-based body. This is against the very spirit of the Constitution.

On the basis of Dalit identity, DICCI and its members want to negotiate, whether with the state or other businesses or whosoever.

Is it then that DICCI has the hidden agenda of using the Dalit identity as a bargaining chip?I can’t understand from where the conceptualisation of DICCI has come. There are people in DICCI – Chandra Bhan Prasad (journalist) and Shyam Babu (Senior Fellow with the Centre for Policy Research) – who are designated as mentors. They were never capitalists or industrialists. If they themselves haven’t had any practical experience of industrialisation, how are they going to mentor?

I see a mechanism of the state here. Certain leaders within the state created DICCI to legitimise the process of globalisation, which is exclusionary and exploitative in nature. The creation of DICCI, therefore, enables these leaders to say that there is a group of Dalit entrepreneurs who have benefited from the process of globalisation. I see DICCI as a design of the earlier regime, as also of the current one, to legitimise the process of exclusion of Dalits.

DICCI was followed by foreign researchers. They came from (University of) Pennsylvania, researched certain villages, and concluded that Dalits had benefited from the process of globalization.

Researchers like who?For instance, Devesh Kapur [Director, Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania], wrote a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly [He was the co-author of the piece, Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in the Market Reform Era] and came to the conclusion that Dalits had benefited from market reforms.

Are you suggesting that DICCI sponsored it and the research was motivated?I’d say the government sponsored some people to undertake certain research projects. It was purposive sampling – villages were chosen where access was given. Then purposive indicators were chosen to reach a designed outcome. People in DICCI were involved in the research as well. [Chandra Bhan Prasad and Shyam Babu were among the co-authors.] The outcome was designed to make the assertion that globalisation had benefited Dalits and that entrepreneurs have emerged from among them.

They forget that the hiatus between the rich and the poor has increased. It is easy to establish this through one example. In 2105, a cricketer was bought for Rs 16 crore [in Indian Premium League auctioning]. On the other hand, wages given under MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] are Rs 100 or Rs 150 a day. You can see the gap in the income. Then again, 27.5% of Dalits in India live below the poverty line, which itself is abysmally defined. Can this be squared up by pointing out that a couple of thousands of people have made money?

Reservation has benefited far more people than the 2,500-3,000 Dalits who are hailed as entrepreneurs. Even these entrepreneurs are second or third-generation learners. They are not the people who started fresh or became millionaires overnight. There were laws and rules and regulations by which Dalits were allowed to walk on the road or get admitted to schools, thereby accumulating criticality to enter businesses. They did not become entrepreneurs out of the blue.

It isn’t a healthy sign to have DICCI undermine the constitutional mechanism and democratic development.

But how is DICCI undermining it?It is undermining it through the assertion that globalisation has benefited Dalits. Globalisation occurred at a particular historical juncture of Indian democracy. You had state socialism, reservation, a democratic Constitution…it was only in the 1990s that globalisation came in. By saying that globalisation has benefitted Dalits, you are essentially undermining the other historical processes (which helped them to acquire certain criticality.) It is indeed a lopsided argument to claim that these entrepreneurs have emerged only because of globalisation.

So what you are saying is that Dalit entrepreneurs benefited from other structures which were created – like reservation or government policies to provide easy loans to Dalits. Yes.

Even Kalpana Saroj, CEO of Kamani Tubes, took the benefit of loans meant for the Scheduled Castes when she started a tailoring unit.Forget the loans she availed of, her father himself was a policeman. It gave her the chance to think that she and others were no longer as subaltern as their forefathers were. There are others in DICCI who studied in prestigious engineering institutes.

For instance, Milind Kamble, who established Fortune Construction Company and is a founder-member of DICCI?A good of many of them are second-generation learners. Their fathers benefited from the positive discrimination policy and, of course, by the funding of the government. It was because of such policies they have built their entrepreneurial careers. I am intrigued by the argument that there is an inbuilt mechanism in globalisation to benefit Dalits. You also have to look at the ratio in which globalisation has benefited whom. You gush about Dalit millionaires (in a country) where there are 97 billionaires.

You have to also take into account the Dalits whom the globalisation might have affected adversely.My own research shows that manual jobs which Dalits labourers performed have been wiped out. This is because of privatisation which is part of the process of globalisation and structural adjustment. Take the example of the washer-men (dhobi) community. They used to wash the bed-sheets in the Railways. They have been wiped out because their work has been assigned to mechanised firms. Thousands and thousands of people have been unemployed. It is the same with carpenters, whose work was labour intensive. Mechanised farming has deprived communities like the Mushars of food, besides reducing the chances of the landless to offer labour. Small scale industries which used to manufacture parts of machinery are closing down. DICCI doesn’t take these things into account.

Would the interests of Dalits entrepreneurs be a mix of caste and class, or would they see their interests in purely class terms?Well, I haven’t seen Dalit social responsibility commensurate with corporate social responsibility. There is this person who brings out a book annually on the status of Dalits – I am not naming him because he wouldn’t want to – and he approached DICCI for advertisement. When the date for sending the book to the press approached, the regional president said he couldn’t get DICCI to advertise, but offered Rs 2,000 from his own pocket! This is their level of contribution to the society.

One or two individuals may contribute to the larger good. Kalpana Saroj, for instance, is said to have abandoned the idea of buying a chopper in order to open a school. But that is an exception. You can’t make an order out of exception. What I mean is that there are a few people who have come up on their own, because of their agility or creativity or entrepreneur skills.

All credit to them for that?Indeed, all credit to them. But is there a Dalit-ness to their economic mobility? So when you are saying, as DICCI is tacitly doing, “Look, Dalit entrepreneurship has come up”, then you are trying to generalise. That is what I mean by saying that exception is being made into an order.

How do you define the Dalit-ness of an entrepreneur?When we speak of Dalit-ness, we have in mind the exclusion of Dalits. This exclusion is cumulative in nature – Dalits are excluded from economic, political, social, educational, religious, residential, and other aspects of the society. In the capital or market arena, if he or she is in, then at least in one aspect – that is, in the aspect of capital – he or she has been included. If he or she is excluded from other arenas, the question to ask is: Is this exclusion affecting his or her entrepreneurial creativity? If his or her exclusion is not affecting him or her in the market arena, then why invoke the Dalit identity. For instance, if a Dalit is not getting a loan, is it because of his or her Dalit identity?

Or is it that he or she hopes to get the loan by advertising that he or she is a Dalit?That is what I am saying. If you are getting that benefit, then that was already provided through government policies. There is a corporation which has a budget of Rs 184 crore and its purpose is to provide loans to Scheduled Castes.

Instead of forming DICCI, which is a farcical organisation to legitimise the process of globalisation, what they could have done is to ask the government to increase the amount of fund earmarked for providing loans to Dalits. Or they could have asked for greater representation in institutions which are already benefitting from the public exchequer. For instance, FICCI members are given land at concessional rates and tax holidays. DICCI members should have asked for space in such institutions.

What DICCI members are doing is to redefine their identity (Dalit entrepreneurs) for getting FICCI to throw crumbs at them. What DICCI should have argued is that all funds should be allocated to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which is a nodal agency and which could then disburse it. In other words, what has been created is an extra-constitutional body. It is like creating King’s men – whenever you want, you can appropriate DICCI, and whenever you want to decimate it, you can do that as well.

Does their being a separate entity makes them more vulnerable?Yes, they can be targeted. In villages, for instance, Dalits live in separate bastis [localities]. It made it easier to blockade them, to attack them. Similarly, Dalit entrepreneurs are now at one place. They can be attacked anytime. That is why Kanshi Ram never got BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) registered. Once an organisation is registered, it has to give the government its list of members. He thought they could be targeted by the government anytime it wished.

So, as an extra-constitutional body, DICCI can only listen to the government. Where does it leave its talk of radicalisation, that DICCI would help obliterate caste and moderate capitalism? They are part and parcel of the same (capitalist class).

Would a Dalit capitalist treat Dalit labour differently?I have yet to figure out what DICCI is all about. If you were to go by the elitist attitude of DICCI members, who attended the (December 29) national conference of Dalit entrepreneurs dressed in suits, then it remains a million dollar question on how they would treat their Dalit employees. There will always be certain individuals who would treat their workforce properly.

But does DICCI have a stated objective on how to treat their Dalit workforce, whether the workers would be permanent employees or be hired as daily wagers, or whether they would get bonuses? I don’t find anything of this sort.

Second, when DICCI members meet, what do they discuss? Have they added to the value system? Entrepreneurship and economic development are values which have to be sown at the grassroots level of the society. Are they talking about this? Or is DICCI just an organisation of which you become a member only after you have achieved a certain turnover?

Are you saying that DICCI is an exclusive club of rich Dalits?That is what it has become.

You mean to say it wasn’t so earlier?I think certain people were earlier of the opinion that through DICCI they would sow the seeds of entrepreneurship in the Dalit masses for their economic emancipation. But I don’t see that happening. I think it is now a group of people who have established themselves.

A few people emerging out of poverty, exclusion and oppression is a good thing for our democracy. I will buy that. But their emergence is certainly not a result of globalisation or capitalism. I am not going to buy that argument. They are, first of all, the product of the democratic system which has given them the right to live in this land and walk the streets as a common citizen. Had this right not been given, they would not have been able to achieve what they have. The gathering at the DICCI conference was a celebration of democracy, not of globalisation.

Which is what you fault DICCI for – celebrating globalisation?A much larger population has emerged from oppression through the constitutional mechanism called reservation. This is despite a large chunk of reservation quota not being filled. In 2011, there were 3,251 IAS officers. Only 13.9% of them were Dalits. According to an answer to a parliamentary question, there is a backlog of 25,000 posts mandated for Dalits.

You are celebrating 2,500 Dalits who have become millionaires. But had people been given constitutionally mandated jobs that are lying vacant, a much larger number than 2,500 would have become millionaires. It would have been great if DICCI had taken up this issue.