30 Jun 2017 14:04 IST

Eat, wear, dalit

An entrepreneur has dared the market to consume food and wear clothes crafted by Dalit hands

In the living room of a quiet apartment in east Delhi hangs a tall framed poster of a statue that, at first glance, seems like a Technicolor Statue of Liberty. Except that, instead of the crown, she is donning a yellow hat. And the torch has been replaced by a pink pen in the right hand and a notebook in the left. At her feet lies a desktop and the colourful background she stands against screams ‘ENGLISH the Dalit Goddess’. The goddess assumes a more real status in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri, where, seven years ago, a temple was built for her bronze statue.

Chandra Bhan Prasad, the man who created the goddess, welcomes me to his apartment before leading me to a room full of cartons. Enclosed are 100 formal shirts in blue and white, one of which he is wearing. They are Egyptian cotton shirts with a fine stitch. “This is the first batch of shirts under Dalit clothes, made by dalits, ready for dispatch,” he says.

Prasad had been toying with the idea since July last year, when he launched his first venture — Dalit Foods. Sourcing from dalit farmers and vendors, Prasad manufactures spices, pulses and flour which are unpolished, raw and preservative-free, just the way dalits have always consumed them. The coriander seeds are from Guna (Madhya Pradesh), chillies are procured from Bhiwapur (Maharashtra), turmeric from Chandupur (Uttar Pradesh), barley flour from Rajasthan, dry matar atta is procured from Delhi, arhar dal is from Lucknow and the mango pickle is from Sitapur, near Lakhimpur Kheri. Part of the challenge has been finding dalit farmers who will supply reasonable quantities. At the moment, that amounts to only 80 per cent of the farmers in the Dalit Foods supply chain.

“In the olden days, dalits would live on the fringes, owning small parcels of land with no irrigation. They were forced to produce and eat hardy millets that grew with the moisture that the soil absorbed naturally. They would be paid for their labour in kind, and often leftover seeds would be thrown on their fields by their employers,” says Prasad. It was this diet of unpolished millets that explained their long, healthy lives.

After years of championing the Dalit cause, Prasad, a dalit himself, donned several hats before becoming an entrepreneur at the age of 57. He was an active member of the AISF (All India Students Federation) and a PhD scholar in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who was rusticated in 1983 for participating in a student’s uprising in support of Maoists. He went on to become a Maoist revolutionary and then a mentor at the Dalit Chamber of Commerce.

With a bank loan of ₹10 lakh, his own personal savings and with a few friends who agreed to be employees, he rented a tiny space in Joshi Colony, IP Extension, which today smells of a concoction of freshly ground spices. A narrow, steep stairway leads to two rooms one above the other and a terrace used to dry the spices. One of the rooms contains a mechanised crusher and the other is used to package the contents in glass bottles and plastic packets. An office space in Civil Lines, in central Delhi, was given to him by Dr Shubha Parmar, a reader at Delhi University, for his e-commerce team to work from.

“E-commerce has meant that I bear minimal operation costs,” says Prasad, whose products sell on Amazon and Flipkart. A 350g bottle of mango pickle costs ₹250, a 150g bottle of turmeric costs ₹150, an 850g packet of barley atta costs ₹175. Prasad insists that although his products don’t bear the organic seal, they are mostly organic — because he procures supplies from arid farm patches where fertilisers aren’t used.

Prasad admits that business is slow. In a day, Dalit Foods gets orders for five to 10 items, and the monthly revenue is ₹1.5-2 lakh. He hasn’t broken even yet. But given that he has employed only five people and incurs minimal operation costs, he hopes to soon.

Timed with the venture’s first anniversary, Prasad is launching Dalitshop.com this week, to sell clothes crafted by dalits, and other products, giving several third-party dalit entrepreneurs an online platform in the process. But the more important question is who is buying his products? Is the Nangeli coat, named after a 19th-century dalit from Travancore who sliced her breasts off in protest against the ‘breast tax’ levied on women of lower caste who chose to cover their chest meant to be worn by a dalit? Are Dalit foods to be eaten only by dalits?

Prasad believes that India is undergoing a dalit uprising. Citing ‘The great Chamar’ signboard in Saharanpur, the rise of Chamar pop, and the certainty of a dalit becoming India’s next President, Prasad is replete with examples where dalit youth are seizing the moment.

If dalit pride is the new rage, Prasad’s business seems ahead of the curve. Preliminary research shows that most purchases of Dalit Foods are made by non-dalits, who support the idea.

A month ago, Prasad hit upon his biggest success. A well-known five-star heritage hotel sampled his spices, found them to be superlative and agreed to source in bulk. Prasad, however, was asked to not make the deal public. “It might affect what our clients think of us,” they muttered apologetically. But Prasad isn’t disheartened. “One day dalits will be known for their purity,” he says before he goes off to meet dalit leather shoemakers in Agra, for his next addition to Dalitshop — dalit shoes.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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