'I was one of India's unclean Dalits ... now I am a millionaire'

One entrepreneur escapes the caste system and economic growth is helping Dalits work out of poverty, but bias against them is still prevalent.

Hari Kishan Pippal visits his Heritage Hospital, one of the largest private medical facilities in the north Indian city of Agra.
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AGRA, INDIA // As far back as he can remember, people told Hari Kishan Pippal that he was unclean, with a filthiness that had tainted his family for centuries. Teachers forced him to sit apart from other students. Employers sometimes did not bother to pay him.

Mr Pippal is a Dalit, a member of the outcast community once known as untouchables. Born at the bottom of Hinduism's complex social ladder, that meant he could not eat with people from higher castes or drink from their wells.

He was not supposed to aspire to a life beyond that of his father, an illiterate cobbler. Years later, he still will not repeat the slurs that people called him.

Now, though, people call him something else. They call him rich.

Mr Pippal, 60, owns a hospital, a shoe factory, a car dealership and a publishing company. He has six cars. He lives in a maze of linked apartments in a quiet if dusty neighbourhood of high walls and wrought-iron gates.

"In my heart I am Dalit. But with good clothes, good food, good business, it is like I am high-caste," he said.

Now, he points out, he is richer than most Brahmins, who sit at the top of the caste hierarchy: "I am more than Brahmin!"

The vast majority of India's 170 million Dalits live amid a thicket of grim statistics: less than a third are literate, more than 40 per cent survive on less than US$2 (Dh7.34) a day and infant mortality rates are dramatically higher than among higher castes.

Dalits are far more likely than the overall population to be underweight and far less likely to get postnatal care.

While caste discrimination has been outlawed for more than 60 years and the term "untouchable" is now taboo in public, thousands of anti-Dalit attacks occur every year. Hundreds of people are killed.

The stories spill from India's newspapers: the 14-year-old Dalit strangled because he shared his first name with a higher-caste boy; the 70-year-old man and his disabled daughter burnt alive after a Dalit-owned dog barked at higher-caste neighbours; the man run over at a petrol station because he refused to give up his place in line to a high-caste customer.

But amid centuries of caste tradition that can seem immutable, there has been slow change.

In an extensive survey by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India in the US at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that Dalits living in concrete homes, not huts made from mud and straw, had jumped from 18 per cent to 64 per cent between 1990 and 2007 in one north Indian district.

Ownership of various household goods - fans, chairs, pressure cookers and bicycles - had skyrocketed over the same period. The study also found a weakening of some caste traditions, with, for example, far fewer Dalits being seated separately at non-Dalit weddings.

While most Dalits still support themselves as rural labourers, there is also a growing Dalit middle class, many of them civil servants who have benefited from affirmative action laws.

"Caste is losing its grip," said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer, social scientist and one-time Marxist militant who has become a leading voice urging the Dalit poor to see the virtues of capitalism.

In a consumer society, Mr Prasad argues, wealth can trump caste - at least some of the time.

Growing economies also foster urbanisation, he said, allowing low-caste Indians to escape traditional village strictures.

Economic growth also means the traditional merchant castes are not large enough to fill every job.

No one knows how many wealthy Dalit entrepreneurs have emerged since India opened its economy in the early 1990s, sparking some of the world's fastest economic growth. Hundreds certainly, maybe thousands.

They are also increasingly visible and the wealthiest have become darlings of the Indian media, held up as proof that modern India is an increasingly caste-blind society.

This is nonsense, said Anand Teltumbde, a prominent Dalit activist.

"These stories [about successful Dalits] sit well with the middle class," said Mr Teltumbde, who is a grandson of BR Ambedkar, an independence-era Dalit lawyer revered as a hero by Dalits across India. "The entire world has changed ... but the number of well-off Dalits is no more than 10 per cent. Ninety per cent of Dalits live a dilapidated kind of life."

As for Mr Pippal, he finds himself uncomfortably in the middle of this debate. He is a rich Dalit who thinks very little has changed for India's outcasts, a man who credits his own success to hard work and ego.

"From my childhood, I was thinking, 'One day I will be a big man'," he said.

Raised in poverty, he only made it through high school before his father became ill, so he had to go to work pulling a rickshaw to support the family. His first break came when he married a Dalit woman from a slightly better-off family that owned a small shoe workshop.

Mr Pippal shifted the focus of his father-in-law's workshop, concentrating on high-quality shoes and teaching himself languages - English, Tamil, Punjabi, Russian, German - to sell his goods more widely.

Today, he owns a 300-worker factory where 500 handmade shoes are turned out every day, then packed into boxes already marked with prices in euros and British pounds. The expensive ones retail for as much as US$500 a pair.

He used his profits to start a small Honda dealership, then the hospital. Immense profits are being made in India's private healthcare industry, as the new middle class seeks alternatives to the often-questionable care at most public hospitals.

Mr Pippal has proven himself a success. He is rich. He is greeted with respect on the streets. His children went to good schools and grew up with friends from across the caste spectrum.

Yet he believes he often remains, a figure of quiet contempt.

"These people are very bloody clever," Mr Pippal said of the high-caste businessmen with whom he deals. "When there are profits to be made, then everything [about his caste] is OK. But in their mind, they're thinking, 'He is a Dalit'."