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‘Dalit Foods’: Entrepreneur Chandra Bhan Prasad’s Initiative to fight Casteism in India

Chandra Bhan Prasad's 'Dalit Foods' is an effort that seeks Dalit empowerment via creating acceptability and ensuring inclusivity in the society

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Chandra Bhan Prasad, Dalit Foods. Image source: www.youtube.com
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  • Chandra Bhan Prasad started ‘Dalit Foods’ in a bid to foray into food-processing industry, which still is difficult for a Dalit
  • The business is limited to Delhi for now, the expansion will be based on customers’ response
  • The website is basic one and lists mango pickle, turmeric, flax seeds, coriander and red chilli among other products

When in 1942, at All India-Depressed Class Conference, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar envisioned his “battle for freedom” and proclaimed, “with justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle,” little did he know that even after 72 long years of struggle, his dream of realising social and economic equality for the marginalised will remain a far-fetched one.

Be it the very recent Rohith Vemula suicide case or the incident where 100 children left the school premises in Karnataka, refusing to eat food ‘contaminated’ by a Dalit cook in November 2015, the caste system continues to haunt the country.

India Today quoted a 2010 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) brought to surface that a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes. Every day, on an average- 3 Dalit women are raped, 2 Dalits are murdered, and 2 Dalit houses are burnt.

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In the light of these shocking revelations, any effort aimed at mending the already incurred damage appears to be a huge step.

The Dalit Studies Conference. Image source: casi.sas.upenn.edu
The Dalit Studies Conference. Image source: casi.sas.upenn.edu

In one such effort, Indian journalist and political commentator, Chandra Bhan Prasad, has launched an e-commerce food business under the name ‘Dalit Foods’, which will test and challenge the age-old connection between caste and occupation as Dalits still find it extremely difficult to endeavour into the food and food-processing industries.

Speaking to Live Mint, Prasad who is also a Dalit entrepreneur and adviser to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, termed the venture to be a “social experiment.”

According to him it is a risk taken to find out “whether there are any takers for Dalit food in India and if India has really transformed from a country where people thoroughly cleaned the kitchen if a Dalit even stepped into it to one in which people would buy food items knowing they are manufactured by Dalits.”

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Prasad also pointed out that the name ‘Dalit Foods’ holds a special significance and is “equivalent to making a political statement in a country where the Dalit has emerged as a political category.”

Prasad believes that though Dalits have come out and have engaged themselves with other communities, it is time for them to assert their identity openly and added that it was time the Dalits integrate with the society in a real sense.

While the business is limited to Delhi for now, the expansion will be based on customers’ response.

Started off as an e-commerce owing to the financial constraints, the website is a very simple one. It enlists mango pickle, turmeric, flax seeds, coriander and red chilli among the other products it sells, which serve as staples in any Indian kitchen.

“We have special turmeric which is grown in water-deficient Wardha district of Maharashtra. The coriander is from Bundelkhand. The red chilli is from Mathania in Rajasthan,” said Prasad.

He added, “The mango pickle I am selling is not like any other pickle. We don’t use any acid as a preservative. In my community too, there are some who are very poor and have thick chapatis with only red chilli and salt. Those who are relatively better-off use achar (pickle). So, achar for us, is made in a way that it becomes as good as a sabzi (curry).”

The business has been started with an investment of five lakh and is in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Industry, a lobby group.

While the venture is small-scaled for now, it intends to achieve big by seeking acceptance and inclusivity for the Dalits.

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How telecom has become driver of economic change in India

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The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front.
The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. Wikimedia Commons
  • India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution
  • The sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991
  • India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world

For the most part of human history, the change was glacial in pace. It was quite safe to assume that the world at the time of your death would look pretty much similar to the one at the time of your birth. That is no longer the case, and the pace of change seems to be growing exponentially. Futurist Ray Kurzweil put it succinctly when he wrote in 2001: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” Since the time of his writing, a lot has changed, especially with the advent of the internet.

India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution. The country’s hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. In fact, according to Reserve Bank of India data, the sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991, growing by over 10 percent. On the other hand, no other sector has had a productivity growth of above five percent during the same period. It is no wonder that it has also been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Indian economy, growing at over seven percent in the last decade itself.

Also Read: Social Media in India: Understanding The Dynamics of ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’

Such an unprecedented pace of growth has been brought about the precise levels of change that Kurzweil was so enthusiastic about. Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Meanwhile, India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world, which has hit rock bottom after the entry of Reliance Jio. This has ensured access to those even at the bottom of the pyramid.

A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country.
A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. Wikimedia Commons

Even though consumers have come to be accustomed to fast-paced changes within the telecom sector, the entry of Jio altered the face of the industry like never before by changing the very basis of competition. Data became the focal point of competition for an industry that derived over 75 percent of its revenue from voice. It was quite obvious that there would be immediate economic effects due to it. Now that we’re nearing a year of Jio’s paid operations, during which time it has even become profitable, we saw it fit to quantify its socio-economic impact on the country. Three broad takeaways need to be highlighted.

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First, the most evident effect has been the rise in affordability of calling and data services. Voice services have become practically costless while data prices have dropped from an average of Rs 152 per GB to lower than Rs 10 per GB. Such a drastic reduction in data prices has not only brought the internet within the reach of a larger proportion of the Indian population but has also allowed newer segments of society to use and experience it for the first time. Since the monthly saving of an average internet user came out to be Rs 142 per month (taking a conservative estimate that the consumer is still using 1 GB of data each month) and there are about 350 million mobile internet users in the country (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India data), the yearly financial savings for the entire country comes out to be Rs 60,000 crore.

To put things in perspective, this amount is more than four times the entire GDP of Bhutan. Therefore, mere savings by the consumer on data has been at astonishing proportions.

Today's smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons
Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons

Now, this data has been used for services that have brought to life a thriving app economy within the country. So, the second level of impact has been in the redressal of a variety of consumer needs — ranging from education, health and entertainment to banking. For instance, students in remote areas can now access online courseware and small businesses can access newer markets. Information asymmetry has been considerably reduced.

Third, a rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. These effects arise not merely from the creation of an internet economy, but also due to the synergy effects it generates. Information becomes more accessible and communication a lot easier. Businesses find it easier to operate and access consumers. Labour working in cities has to make less frequent trips home and becomes more productive as a result. Education and health services become available in inaccessible locations. Multiple avenues open up for knowledge and skill enhancement.

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An econometric analysis for the Indian economy showed that the 15 percent increase in internet penetration due to Jio and the spill-over effects it creates will raise the per capita levels of the country’s GDP by 5.85 percent, provided all else remains constant.

Thus, India’s telecom sector will continue to drive the economy forward, at least in the short run, and hopefully catapult India into 20,000 years of progress within this century, as Kurzweil postulated. The best approach for the state would be to ensure the environment of unfettered competition within the industry. Maybe other sectors of the economy ought to take a leaf out of the telecom growth story. The Indian banking sector comes to mind. However, that is a topic for another day. (IANS)

(Amit Kapoor is Chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India. He can be contacted at Amit. Kapoor@competitiveness.in and tweets @kautiliya. Chirag Yadav, a senior researcher at the institute, has contributed to the article.)