Married At 12, How A Dalit Woman Beat The Odds To Become A Multi-Millionaire Entrepreneur

By Aparna Wanchoo:

India’s caste system is an ancient social hierarchy, which places people into different categories by birth. Those born into the lower castes have historically faced discrimination. More than 160 million people in India are considered “Untouchable”–people tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure, less than human. Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells their story: “Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers”; “Dalit ‘witch’ paraded naked in Bihar”; “Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked”; “Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits”. But one woman has managed to change this existing status, the multi millionaire Dalit woman, Kalpana Saroj.

Kalpana Saroj: Entrepreneur and millionaire
Photo: Amey Mansabdar

The dark horse, Kalpana Saroj is one woman whose story begs to differ. Hailing from Murtizapura, a hamlet in the interiors of Maharashtra and being born in a low caste Dalit family, she has had her shares of agony and misfortune. But she was one of the rare individuals, who by her sheer hard luck and perseverance, managed to turn the tables around. Today, she is a multi-millionaire. At the helm of a successful company, she rubs shoulders with prominent businessmen and has won several prestigious awards for her professionalism.

Early, Distressed Years

Even though her father allowed her to get an education, wider family pressures saw Kalpana become a bride at the age of 12. She moved to Mumbai to be with her husband who was 10 years older, but was shocked to find herself living in a slum. But that was not the only hardship she had to endure. She underwent unspeakable torture at the hands of her brother in law and his wife. She finally abandoned the alliance with support from her father, and was taken back to her village. Driven to despair by her wretched circumstances, she attempted suicide, but survived. At that moment, she decided that she would achieve something, and live life on her terms. Determined to make it big, she returned to Mumbai a few years later and stayed with an uncle. Working in a hosiery company, she eked out a living earning a meager Rs 2 a day. But it was in the rough and tumble of Mumbai’s underbelly that she acquired her raw aggression, determination and earthy approach to conducting business.

Her advent in the world of business was born out of misfortune. In the mid-1980s, her second husband passed away, and she inherited a fabrication unit for making cheap tin and steel almirahs. It wasn’t much of a business, but she quickly learnt the ropes. The unit helped her to make ends meet and raise her two children. She even managed to put some money away. It was in the construction industry that Saroj really honed her business acumen. It was a tough business, and she had to frequently confront shady elements and opposition of all hues.

The Turning Point: Kamani Group case

Kamani Group’s case was a historic one in India. In 1988, the Supreme Court had decided to make the workers the owners of the company. Due to issues between the workers, union and management, Kamani Tubes went bankrupt and was facing liquidation. Kalpana came into the picture only in the year 2000 when the company had a debt of Rs. 116 crore, 140 litigation cases and two workers unions.

Kamani Tubes had no significant assets to its name. The factory in Kurla (Mumbai) was not operational. Machine parts had been stolen. The office space was occupied by tenants who had been there for years. The four-acre land the factory stood on was divided between Kamani Metals and Kamani Engineering.

She met with representatives of the banks, the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) and the government. Their brief to her was simple–if she wanted to help, she could pay Rs. 2.5 crore and take charge of the company. That is what she did. She had studied the company’s problems and realized that the debt had built up because of interests and penalties. She approached the Finance Minister around 2005 and requested that these be waived off. Her grounds for the request were that if the company goes into liquidation, the banks would get nothing. But since she was trying to turn the firm around, if they were waived, it would be possible for her to pay the debt back.

Her good intentions were noticed. The minister called up the chairmen of all the banks and got them to waive the extra charges off and the liabilities came down to about Rs. 45 crores. This was just one part of the problem with this firm. The other was the 140 litigation cases. They were tackled systematically and the company was finally released from the BIFR in June 2011. She restarted the factory on her own land in Wada (Thane). Gradually, the company limped back to normalcy with a better production and distribution network. It paid off the workers and was able to give back the dues of the original owner, Navinbhai Kamani.

Running Multiple Factories 

Today, she presides over varied businesses. The single factory Sai Krupa Sakhar Karkhana in Ahmednagar, in which she holds a substantial stake, is graduating to an integrated sugar complex. Capacity has been enhanced to 7,500 TCD (tonnes of sugarcane crushed per day), and a 60 KLD (kilo litres per day) distillery is coming up. They are also building a 35 MW co-generation power plant.

A diversification into steel manufacturing and mining has come about recently. Initial investments of Rs 10 crore for a 100 tonnes per day steel plant has been made at Wada, on the outskirts of Mumbai. A bauxite mining initiative across 1,230 acres in Udgir, along the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, is being drawn out.

Meanwhile, she has also resurrected the Kamani brand in the Gulf through Al Kamani in Kuwait and Kalpana Saroj LLC in Dubai to cater to the huge demand for copper tubes, especially from the water and sanitation sector.

In a nation where Dalits are even now looked upon by many strata of the society, her success story fosters the belief that nothing can stop a person who is willing to fight through all the odds.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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