Zeher ki pudiya is what Kalpana Saroj’s maternal uncle used to call her as a kid. Little did he anticipate that four decades later, the same zeher ki pudiya will emerge as India’s allegedly first successful woman entrepreneur.
Born in poverty and subjected to inhuman abuse, she overcame impossible odds to become one of the most sought after entrepreneurs in the country. As a Dalit woman growing up in Roparkheda village in Akola district, Kalpana’s caste and gender served as a double-edged sword in her journey to the top.
“I was born in Vidarbha. My father was a constable, and we used to live in the police quarters assigned to us. I had three sisters and two brothers. I was a bright student and loved school. In the quarters where we stayed, the other children and I would play with abandon. It is the adults who posed the problem. They expressed displeasure if I ever came over, scolded their children to play with me and forbade them from visiting my home or accepting any food I offered.
This attitude, though hurtful, was unsurprising. It is the behaviour of the faculty at school that shocked me. They tried to make me sit apart from other students, constantly prevented me from participating in extracurricular activities and undermined any dreams I had for myself. It didn’t matter anyway as I was pulled out of school in class seven and married off,” Kalpana says.
“My father was not a very educated man, but courtesy his job in the law enforcement, he was emancipated in his views and wanted me to complete my education. But in the Dalit community where I grew up, child marriage was the norm. My father’s refusal was drowned out by the clamour and clangour of the extended family. My father was powerless against their united front. I was powerless,” she continues.
Her in-laws looked at her as no more than a ‘housemaid to cook and clean, for free.’ She was brought home by her father within six months of her marriage. Like all women who return to their parents’ home after marriage, she had to endure the stigma. One sultry afternoon, she downed poison. Kalpana’s aunt saved her in the nick of time.
The suicide attempt brought a formidable change in her. “The Kalpana before the suicide was very emotional and easily hurt. For her, there was nothing but darkness in life. When I got out of the hospital, I figured that it would have struggles, if I have a life, and it is my job to face them. People will bad mouth me even after I’m dead, so I might as well live,” she said.
She convinced her parents to let her move to Mumbai, where she stayed with an uncle and committed to her tailoring gig full time. A little while later, due to bureaucratic shuffles, her father lost his job. She was the eldest daughter and only earning member of the family. She put down her savings as deposit and rented a small room at forty rupees a month. Her siblings and parents joined her here. The space was cramped, and money was tight, but they were together, and that’s what mattered.
“As I mentioned, money was scarce. Amidst this, my youngest sister fell ill. We could not afford her treatment. We scrounged everywhere but to no avail. She kept crying, “Didi, save me. I don’t want to die.” But I could not help her. Her words are seared in my memory. That’s when I realised that life without money is useless and I was going to earn lots of it. I started working sixteen hours a day, a habit I still maintain,” she says further.
In the mid-90s, after working at a hosiery shop for a few months, she decided to open her own boutique. At work, Kalpana would often listen to the radio. This helped her secure a loan of Rs 50,000 after she learnt about government schemes for Dalits while tuning in to a programme.
She used this money to start an NGO, which is now known as Kalpana Saroj Foundation. “Having gone through the pain of not being able to find a job, I wanted to provide for as many others as I could,” she says.
It took her two years to pay off her initial loan. Around the same time, a man came to her with a proposal to sell a parcel of land under litigation at Rs 2.5 lakh’s throwaway price. With that, she struck gold in more ways than one. Not only did the value of the land shoot up to Rs 50 lakh after the litigation was cleared, but it also paved the path for her to enter the construction business in Mumbai.
Later, the Kamani Tubes’ labour force sought her out in 2000. The company, started by Ramjibhai Kamani, a former freedom-fighter who both Nehru and Gandhi regarded as a close aide, was on the verge of closing down. The Kamani empire — Kamani Tubes, Kamani Engineering and Kamani Metal — had shone bright back in its day. But, after Ramjibhai’s death in 1965, differences cropped up among the sons and company became collateral damage.
In 2000, the workers approached Saroj, asking her to take over as the company’s president. Her advisors termed it a suicide mission. “But all I thought about was the plight of the workers,” she says.
She resumed the workers’ monthly wage cycles, ran an analysis of their debt, and realised that it largely constituted penalties and interest. So, in 2006, she decided to approach the then finance minister who called an all-heads meeting with the chairpersons of banks including Dena Bank, Canara Bank and Bank of India. She reasoned with them — if the company goes into liquidation, no one gets a single penny, but if the penalties are waived off, the lenders will at least recover their principal amounts. This resonated with them — the banking heads not only signed away the interest but also agreed to deduct 25 per cent from the principal if the money was paid back within a year — and Saroj delivered.
In the same year, she was appointed chairperson of the company, and the court transferred ownership of Kamani Tubes to her. In 2011, they left the ‘sick’ zone.
Today, Kalpana has made the journey from a Maruti 800 in 1997 to owning several cars now. She remarried sometime in 1980 – “see, I don’t even remember the year” – at the age of 22 and had two children, who studied in Germany and London. If one asks about her husband, Samir Saroj, she only smiles. “I don’t think I can discuss that.”
“If Babasaheb ( Ambedkar) can go on to do what he did without the support that I had, I can do at least a percentage of what he accomplished. I have so much more support than him,” she says.
In the year 2013, she was awarded the Padma Shri for her contributions to Trade and Industry, for valorously taking on a failing business. In fact, the promoters, who had been granted time until 2011 to clear the back-wages, managed to disburse them in 2009 itself, within a few months. And it was at that grand ceremony, where the workers were awarded their dues — Rs. 80 million — where Home Minister R R Patil said, “It was destiny that sent all of you (workers) to Kalpana Saroj.”