India's untouchable millionaire makes an exclusive story in The Observer
Amelia Gentleman covers Hari Pippal of Agra rags to riches story
here is what she writes -
As a child, Hari Pippal slept alongside his six sisters and eight brothers on a stretch of pavement. As a teenager, he pedalled a bicycle rickshaw to help feed the family. Now the owner of a large, profitable private hospital, a shoe factory, a motorbike dealership and a successful restaurant, Hari Pippal has become a symbol of the enormous possibilities available in new India to anyone with entrepreneurial flair.
The fact that this self-made millionaire has risen to the top despite being a Dalit (an untouchable) has prompted some to promote his achievements as proof that, as India races towards economic transformation, a more egalitarian society is emerging. Magazines feature him as a Dalit success story. Pippal, however, is uneasy with his status as poster boy for a casteless modern India. He believes his triumphs have come in spite of his caste and warns that, as India becomes richer, caste divisions are becoming ever more pronounced. At the headquarters of his business empire, he said: 'As a rule India's economic boom is only enjoyed by high-caste people. This is a great tragedy for India, because so much talent is being excluded. I feel real despair.'
The Hindu concept of untouchability was abolished in 1950, but the challenge of eradicating prejudices dating back thousands of years has defeated successive governments. Last week in Delhi the issue of caste-related inequalities divided politicians as they argued over the merits of extending affirmative action programmes in universities for backward castes. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has compared the caste system to apartheid South Africa. 'Untouchability is not just social discrimination; it is a blot on humanity,' he said.
Pippal believes that the government needs to force the blossoming corporate sector to introduce positive discrimination schemes of the kind which have existed in the public sector for decades.
'The government believes the scheduled caste [the official term for Dalits] is coming up, that the caste system is disappearing. That is wrong. The gap between the scheduled castes and the higher castes is increasing,' Pippal said. 'Lower castes are still very poor. Without money it's hard to take advantage of the new opportunities, so they stay poor and everyone else gets richer.'
Pippal became conscious of his status on the first day at school. His teachers would mutter in his direction: 'You people are ill-educated, badly dressed and don't know how to behave'. Consigned to do the jobs no one else wants - latrine-cleaners and roadsweepers - Dalits have traditionally been forbidden from touching the food or water of upper castes. Pippal, 56, remembers how teachers would never ask him to bring them water or invite him to eat with them, as they did other higher-caste pupils.
'I responded by deciding I had to be better than the others - cleverer, better dressed, better behaved, more successful,' he said. But the snubs and subtle insults have lasted a lifetime. His surname identifies him as a Dalit, so when he opened his first company he called it 'People's Export' - which sounded about the same, but did not have the same negative connotations.
When he opened his hospital in 2004, it was difficult to recruit high-caste doctors, many of whom would not contemplate working under him. Because the hospital, a few kilometres from the Taj Mahal, swiftly gained a reputation, attitudes changed and he now employs 25 upper-caste doctors. Even now, several of the Dalit doctors avoid revealing their surname, relying on initials so that they don't alarm higher-caste patients.
When the oldest of his five sons said that he was engaged to a girl from a higher caste, Pippal was happy that his son had found someone he loved. Her parents, too, made no objection to the match, but a few days later about 100 people from her community arrived at Pippal's flat, threatening to kill the girl's parents if the marriage went ahead. 'I told my son that he would destroy their whole family if he persisted in the marriage, and he understood,' Pippal said. The son recently married a Dalit doctor from his father's hospital. 'Now I believe my children should marry within their caste. It's better that way.'
India has a number of Dalit role models who have battled their way to the top. This year KG Balakrishnan was sworn in as chief justice of India, the first Dalit to hold the post. Narendra Jadhav, the chief economist of India's central bank, is a Dalit. Yet the social mobility which usually accompanies rapid economic growth has barely touched this 150 million-strong community, the bulk of whom remain deprived and oppressed. Dalits die sooner and are more likely to be malnourished, unemployed and murdered than others.
Pippal knows how exceptional his life has been when he meets his contemporaries from primary school. 'All of my school friends of my caste are still sitting on a pavement making shoes,' he said. 'They are angry with the system, but what can they do?'