03/01/2015 10:58 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

The Incredible Story Of A Dalit Woman's Rise To Success In Mumbai

As a Dalit and a woman entrepreneur, her story says something about the progression of India or, at least, how India ideally hopes to progress. From rank deprivation, Saroj is today a successful businesswoman, a prominent member of the Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and has a Padma Shri.

Ritesh Uttamchandani

By Madhavankutty Pillai

We are in Kalpana Saroj's cabin in Ballard Estate, Mumbai, and it is the day before she has to go to Delhi to attend a Board meeting of Bharatiya Mahila Bank. The bank for women had been mooted in the 2013-14 Union Budget by the then Finance Minister P Chidambaram and when it was launched later that year, the Government had wanted representatives from beyond the banking sector and Saroj had been invited to be a director.

On the Mahila Bank's website, there are short profiles of all Board members. There are people with Master's degrees, Harvard alumni, who have done advanced management programmes and more. Against Saroj's name, no educational qualifications are spelt out. That is because she has not even completed her schooling. The contrast is actually the reason Saroj is there. As a Dalit and a woman entrepreneur, her story says something about the progression of India or, at least, how India ideally hopes to progress. From rank deprivation, Saroj is today a successful businesswoman, a prominent member of the Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and has a Padma Shri. Becoming a director of the Mahila Bank was especially satisfactory. "There was a time when I had to run around for two to three years just to get a Rs 50,000 loan from a bank," she says.

We are sitting in what was once the boardroom of Kamani Tubes, a company that bears the name of the man who started it--Ramji Kamani. The road outside is named after him. It was a family that was once seen as Bombay aristocracy. The woman occupying the room now is from a mofussil village in interior Maharashtra and once tailored for daily wages of a couple of rupees. The decline of the Kamanis, by a combination of labour problems and family disputes, coincides with Saroj's gradual rise.

"My grandfather was a labourer, working in the fields. He somehow educated my father to the level that he could become a constable," she says. This was in a village called Repatkhed, about 50 km from Akola town. Around 1969-70, at the age of 12, largely at the instigation of her maternal uncle, Saroj was married off to a man from Mumbai who was more than 10 years older than her. She had just entered seventh standard in school then. "He (her uncle) told my parents, 'You are lucky, how will you ever get a boy from Mumbai?' Mumbai then was thought like America is now. My father agreed," she says.

The child bride found Mumbai to be nothing like America and even worse than her village. They had lived in decent police quarters at Repatkhed, but here the house in the suburb of Ulhasnagar turned out to be a shanty in a slum. It was a large family of 10 to 12, and she was expected to do most of the housework. Mistakes would get her abuse and beatings from her sister-in-law. After six months, her father came to Mumbai to visit her and was shocked to see her condition. "He said he was going to take me home. They said they won't allow it. They made a scene. But he was in police uniform and took me away," she says.

Back home in Repatkhed, he told her to forget everything that had happened as a bad dream and to start studying again, but she had no enthusiasm anymore. She was also taunted at school by other students about deserting her marriage. "I thought that my life was over; what was the point in studying when I had no future. I continued on till eighth and ninth standard," she says.

She was desperate to make something of life. There was enrolment happening for policewomen for the first time in Akola and Saroj tried to get into the force. She went to the circle inspector, the recruiting officer, who told her that she was too young. She failed to get into nursing. She learnt tailoring. "I didn't think of myself as a burden earlier, but now I felt like one on the family. They started bringing proposals, but I hated the idea of marriage," she says.

Once, after a minor quarrel at home, she decided that she had had enough of such an existence. She bought three bottles of Tik-20, an insecticide used to kill bedbugs, from a medical shop and went to her aunt's home 2 km away. "My bua used to live alone. I told her I have a headache and can I sleep inside. Once alone, I immediately drank all three bottles. My hands and legs began to convulse and my mouth started frothing. My aunt came to give me tea and saw this. She started shouting for help. She thought I had been bitten by a snake," she says.

"It told me the world doesn't care what is going through you or your suffering. Only you can find an answer to your problems."

Saroj says the suicide attempt and what followed was a turning point in her life. Those who came visiting asked whether she had considered how people would talk if she had died; that she had done something dishonourable to taint her father's name. "It told me the world doesn't care what is going through you or your suffering. Only you can find an answer to your problems. I decided that I would never think of dying again," she says.

Saroj was around 16 or 17 then. She told her parents that she wanted to go to Mumbai because there was nothing for her in Akola. She was unable to study and getting no work. In Mumbai, there were mills and companies to work in. Her family gave her permission when she threatened to throw herself under a train. In Mumbai, she first stayed with an uncle, who lived in a slum in Dadar and sold fried papads for a living. He tried to convince her to return, but she wouldn't relent. He was also apprehensive about leaving her alone at home while he went out selling papads. He asked a friend who worked in the Railways and stayed in Railways Quarters to allow Saroj to live with them. "He said he had three daughters and one more would be fine. I started living with them," she says.

She made herself useful doing housework. They put her in touch with a neighbour who worked in a hosiery company. He took Saroj there and asked the supervisor, called Master, to give her a sewing machine to work on. She did get one, but froze up. "I couldn't make it work. I had never been in an environment like this with so many boys and girls all working together. My hands and feet just wouldn't move. The Master shouted at me, 'If you don't know how to use the machine, how could you call yourself a kaarigar (skilled worker)? I don't have any work for you.' I started crying and begged him to give me any work. He gave me a job as a helper, which meant that I would have to cut threads. I would get Rs 2 per day. But I was relieved that I had a job at least," she says.

When the workers went for lunch, Saroj began to work on the sewing machine and got used to it. Once she gained confidence, she again went to the Master and asked to be a kaarigar. He gave her a machine after a month. "That month, I made Rs 225," she says.

She was soon making a reasonable living tailoring. But the family was confronted with a crisis when her father was suspended over a trivial missing clock in the police godown of which he was in charge. Saroj called them to Mumbai. She was making up to Rs 500. It was not fixed pay but depended on how much she produced. She would work at a company and also later at night at home. She rented a house in the suburb of Kalyan for Rs 40 a month and her parents and siblings came to stay.

One more bitter lesson in life followed when her sister became ill and they couldn't afford good treatment. "She was just 17 or 18. Suddenly, her stomach started paining and after 15 to 20 days of the pain it got bloated. The doctor said water had accumulated. There were injections to dry up the water but it was so expensive that we had to take her to government hospitals and they wouldn't really give good care. We could barely meet ends then, even though I was working from 9 to 5 in the morning and then reaching home and again working from 7 till late night. I would get Rs 10 per blouse. Tailoring a dress would get me Rs 60-70," she says.

After her sister died, Saroj decided that money was crucial for a decent life and she wanted to earn a lot of it. There was a radio at home and she would hear of government schemes for Scheduled Castes. She thought she could get some capital from the government to start a tailoring boutique. As a Dalit, she seemed especially eligible for one scheme named after the social reformer Mahatma Jyotibhau Phule. But she knew nothing about how to apply for it. She had heard about a local social worker who assisted in applications, but he was hard to get in touch with. Saroj would go to his home and wait for hours. This continued for a few weeks until one of the people who came there regularly took pity on her and offered to help out. He organised Saroj's paperwork. She had to get numerous documents like caste and earnings certificates and put up a file. Her proposal was passed after some time. The scheme gave the margin money that an applicant could use to get a bank loan. It took time, but Saroj managed to finally get a Rs 50,000 loan from Allahabad Bank. When the money came in, she decided that instead of a tailoring boutique, there would be better profits in a furniture business. "In Ulhasnagar there was a lot of money in it because a Godrej cupboard was Rs 8,000- 9,000, a local cupboard was Rs 2,500-3,000. For the local public, this was affordable," she says.

Kalpana Saroj at the Asiatic Library, Mumbai

Though it had been been arduous to get the finance, she now had a handle on how the system worked. When the man who helped her suggested that they form an organisation to help youths like her get finance from government schemes, Saroj agreed. "At that time, there was nothing much beyond government jobs. We decided to launch an organisation, Susikshit Berozgar Yog Sanghatna, which would organise seminars in which youth participated and government officers would tell them how to avail of schemes. And on the same platform, we would call as special guests bank managers, the Police Commissioner, Collector, Additional Collector, whoever. After the schemes were explained, we would get the youths to fill in application forms stating what they wanted to do and how much they needed," she says. Those who wanted to start small businesses got loans of Rs 5,000 to Rs 5 lakh.

This was in the beginning of the 1980s and slowly she started getting known and also made a lot of contacts with bureaucrats and politicians. Saroj says a number of young people were inducted into the police because of her. Many used the finance provided to buy rickshaws or start workshops to make articles like Ganpati idols. Meanwhile, her own furniture business and tailoring was continuing apace and doing well. And then, life took another leap in a new direction.

Saroj says one day a man came to her and said he wanted to sell a 2.5 acre plot that was under litigation because he needed Rs 2.5 lakh urgently. After he approached her a number of times, she agreed to buy it, offering Rs 1 lakh immediately and the rest after some time. After she got the plot's documents she took them to a Deputy Collector she knew. He took one look at it and said that she was in trouble because the plot was under the Land Ceiling Act and also had other legal issues. A number of clearances from the Collector and Additional Collector would be needed before she could do anything on the land.

Saroj then spent more than two years making the rounds of the bureau- cracy to get the clearances. "1995 to 1998 went in this. The talathi will come and check, then it will go to the naib tehsildar, tehsildar, deputy collector and then it will go to the collector. Going to all these people, time would go. But one thing happened. As soon as the plot got cleared, the Rs 2.5 lakh plot's value shot up to Rs 50 lakh. Litigation was not there anymore and there was no problem with paperwork, and it was on the side of the road,"she says. Saroj found a partner who would construct buildings on it with 65 per cent of profits going to him and the rest to her.

"Before you kill me, I have six bullets in the revolver. After the sixth gets over, then someone can kill me."

There was however opposition from local goons who saw this escalation of the land's value and tried to encroach on it, dumping sand and bricks. She opposed it, and then, Saroj says, they also planned to kill her by giving out a supari, a contract on her life. One among them however came to her and revealed the plot. Saroj immediately went to the Police Commissioner, who ordered the men arrested. And the next day, she also got a licence for a gun and started carrying it with her.

"I went to the police station and asked to call [the goons]. When they came, I put the revolver on the table and told them, 'Before you kill me, I have six bullets in the revolver. After the sixth gets over, then someone can kill me'," she says.

The building's construction was completed and she made a tidy profit. After that, other plots of land that were under litigation came to her. This became her business model. "We took plots like that. End the litigation and give it to him (her partner) to make," she says.

'Kamani Tubes strike', reads the headline of an Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) article from 1975. The company was not doing badly then, and the article, which speaks of its profits, says, 'Over the last 15 years, and especially over the past five years, the Kamani workers have waged a series of struggles--for higher wages, better conditions of work, etc--and have won for themselves relatively high wages which put their earnings in the top decile of the industrial wages in Bombay....The ensuing strike at Kamani Tubes over these issues was launched on August 6. It lasted 114 days.'

Twelve years later, in 1987, EPW has another article titled 'Workers' Alternative to Employment - Case of Kamani Tubes', which paints a picture of its decline and, in an unusual first in India, a possible takeover by the workers of the company's ownership. The article says, 'The Kamani Tubes (KT) case is an extreme example of a fairly familiar story. Started in 1960 as part of the Kamani group of companies, it was doing well until in 1972 a feud among the Kamani brothers, owners of the group, broke out into the open.' Production had stopped for long periods of time because of strikes and lockouts. The company then came under the Sick Industrial Companies Special Provisions (SICA) Act of 1985 and The Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) was charged with looking into how it could be revived. The workers' union mooted a proposal to BIFR on becoming the owners of the company by raising share capital after each member made a contribution.

By 1989, the workers had been allowed to do it and an EPW article that year starts with, 'After over three years of struggle, on September 23 last year the workers of Kamani Tubes Limited (KTL) finally succeeded in taking over the management of the company. The workers formed a co-operative called KTL Kamgar Audyogik Utpadak Sahakari Society Limited which will soon be the major shareholder of KTL. This move has been hailed as a landmark in the labour movement.'

The next year, an EPW article, 'Kamani Tubes One Year After', optimistically states: 'One year has passed since the Kamani Tubes was taken over by the workers.... As far Kamani Tubes is concerned, it has survived the problems of the price war, improved its production levels and has thus shown the competence to stay in the market.'

By the end of the decade, the experiment had completely failed. A Business Standard article of 1998, 'A Revolution That Went Wrong', talks of a rival union being formed. It states, 'The workers desperation is not surprising. Wages have not been paid since March 1997 and power to the plant at Kurla was cut off in June 1997 ...What went wrong? One factor was that KTL couldnt keep pace with changes overtaking Indian industry. Top management salaries rose spectacularly in the nineties, but the workers were unwilling to pay large sums to MBAs.' Also, demand fell in the sugar industry, one of the company's major clients, and expansion plans didn't work out. The article goes on, 'Today the workers have no earthly gods to turn to. Their fate hangs in the scales of the BIFR whose slow proceedings bring little succour. KTL sent its latest appeal to the BIFR on February 20 asking for a hearing to make a final settlement with the banks. Every day's delay means a loss of Rs one lakh. But so far the only response is one that sick companies today must live with: a deathly silence.'

It was at that point that Kalpana Saroj stepped in.

Sixty-two-year old Ramesh Bondkar, who joined Kamani Tubes as a temporary worker way back in 1967 and became a permanent employee two years later, witnessed the decline of the company first hand. "The company used to run for six months, be closed for six months because of strikes," he says. Initially, workers like him were co-opted once the union took over the company, even though he says they had to work at half wages. But when the company shut down in 1997, Bondkar and an overwhelming majority of workers broke away to form their own union and evicted the other union leaders. Their new union now began to coordinate with BIFR to rescue the company. Bondkar says that Kalpana Saroj was a relative of one of their workers and that was how they approached her.

Saroj says that when she was first asked to take over Kamani Tubes, she had never heard of the company.

"It had loans worth Rs 116 crore, 140 cases of litigation, two unions," she says. Everyone told her this was madness.

"I said it is a challenge. I made a team of 10 people, hired a consultant and prepared a scheme on how to revive the company," she says. She first took the scheme to the company's Board, comprising lending banks, judges and union representatives. They told her that she would have to immediately take over as President and oversee day-to-day operations, even though the company would only becomes hers after BIFR cleared it. "Because, even if a notice came from court then, there was no one to receive it on behalf of the company. Company property was getting looted because there were no security guards. There was no clerk to send a letter. Banks wouldn't give a single rupee because there were already outstandings," she says.

From 2000 to 2006, Saroj kept up negotiations with different agencies to which the company owned money in an effort to get approval for her revival scheme. Mumbai Port Trust, which owned the land on which the Ballard Estate buildings stand, said it was owed Rs 1 crore and Rs 6 lakh of other liabilities that needed to be cleared before it would lend its support. Saroj persuaded the Trust to keep its demand on hold until she legally became the promoter and assuaged it by issuing post-dated cheques.

The scheme was passed in 2006 and she became the chairman of Kamani Tubes. "This journey was like wading through a river of fire. Then there were the liabilities to be paid off and then these buildings [in Ballard Estate] had to be taken possession of after asking the government offices to [vacate]," she says. She got the Rs 116 crore debt reduced by asking the government to help get the banks to waive the interest charges.

Bondkar, the union leader, says that the workers too lobbied with the government so that the lending agencies would make Saroj's project feasible. The chairmen of all the creditor banks agreed to negotiate and write off the interest, penalty and also 25 per cent of the principal. The factory was shifted from Kurla to the outskirts of Mumbai, where she owned land. "In 2009, I took the factory there and started it. I raised three sheds there. I got the machinery refurbished by putting in new parts. The court told us that we would have to get out of SICA by 2011. And we got out of SICA in 2011," she says.

She also cleared all the dues that the workers had pending, like unpaid salaries stretching over years and provident fund payments. Workers got between Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. Ramchandra Kadam, who joined Kamani Tubes in 1971 and was also president of the new union, says if Saroj had not come in at that point of time, the workers would have been left bereft of jobs. "If this company hadn't got this party, no one would have got any money. They didn't keep anyone's dues pending after they took over," he says.

A charge made against Saroj by members of the earlier union was that her takeover was a move to strip the real estate of Kamani Tubes. She disputes that. According to her, the company had 4.5 acres on lease in the suburb of Kurla but it couldn't be claimed and was turned over. "Kamani Tubes had just the shed and the machinery because the parts also had been taken away. Then there were the two buildings remaining here [in Ballard Estate]. In it there were all semi government offices like MSEB BEHL, etcetera, as tenants. None of them was empty then. Only this boardroom was there. Then there was a 3.5 to 4-acre plot in Bangalore. Its value in 2000 was Rs 40 lakh. So, in 2000, if I had sold all its assets I would have got about Rs 3 to 4 crore while I was taking on liabilities of Rs 116 crore," she says. "The court gave me seven years to make payments to the lenders. I paid them off in one year."

Saroj says she is now planning to diversify with a steel rolling mill under the brand of Kamani Steel. Among the people she settled with was also a cheque of Rs 51 lakh to Ramji's son Navin Kamani (he passed away recently), who used to be the chairman when the family owned Kamani Tubes. When the provident fund accounts were being looked at, her accountant told her she could grant him Rs 51 lakh. "My bankers told me it was not necessary since they had been original guarantors to the debt and I was paying off all the liabilities. I told them, 'No way', I would give the money," she says.

It's quite an image--a once penurious Dalit woman offering money to the scion of a once-wealthy industrial house; a story of reversal of fortunes that runs through the ages but is also special to the moment.

This article is from Open Magazine.