- Associated Press - Thursday, December 29, 2011

AGRA, INDIA As far back as he can remember, people told Hari Kishan Pippal that he was unclean with a filthiness that had tainted his family for centuries.

Teachers forced him to sit apart from other students. Employers sometimes didn’t bother to pay him.

Mr. Pippal is a dalit, a member of the outcast community once known as untouchables.

Born at the bottom of Hinduism’s complex social ladder, that meant he could not eat with people from higher castes or drink from their wells. He was not supposed to aspire to a life beyond that of his father, an illiterate cobbler.

Years later, he still won’t repeat the slurs that people called him. Now, though, people call him something else.

They call him rich.

Mr. Pippal owns a hospital, a shoe factory, a car dealership and a publishing company. He owns six cars. He lives in a maze of linked apartments in a quiet if dusty neighborhood of high walls and wrought-iron gates.

“In my heart, I am dalit. But with good clothes, good food, good business, it is like I am high-caste,” said Mr. Pippal, a 60-year-old with a shock of white hair, a well-tailored vest and the girth of a Victorian gentleman.

Now, he points out, he is richer than most Brahmins, who sit at the top of the caste hierarchy: “I am more than Brahmin.”

But in an increasingly globalized nation wrestling with centuries of deeply held caste beliefs, there is little agreement about what that means: Do Mr. Pippal and the handful of other dalit millionaires reflect a country shrugging off centuries of caste bias? Does caste still hold sway the way it used to?

Even Mr. Pippal isn’t sure.

“Life is good for me,” he says, sitting in his office in Heritage Hospital, one of the largest private medical facilities in this north Indian city. “But life is very bad for many, many people.”

The vast majority of India’s 170 million dalits live amid a thicket of grim statistics: Less than a third are literate, more than 40 percent survive on less than $2 a day, infant-mortality rates are dramatically higher than among higher castes.

While caste discrimination has been outlawed for more than 60 years, and the term “untouchable” is now taboo in public, thousands of anti-dalit attacks occur every year. Hundreds of people are killed.

The stories spill from India’s newspapers: the 14-year-old dalit who was strangled because he shared his first name with a higher-caste boy; the 70-year-old man and his disabled daughter who were burned alive after a dalit-owned dog barked at higher-caste neighbors; the man who was run over at a gas station because he refused to give up his place in line to a high-caste customer.

Amid centuries of caste tradition that can seem immutable, there has been slow change.

In an extensive survey by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that dalits living in concrete homes, not huts made from mud and straw, had jumped from 18 percent to 64 percent between 1990 and 2007 in one north Indian district.

Ownership of various household goods - fans, chairs, pressure cookers and bicycles - had skyrocketed over the same period.

The survey also found a weakening of some caste traditions, with far fewer dalits being seated separately at non-dalit weddings, for example.

While most dalits still support themselves as rural laborers, there is also a growing dalit middle class, many of them civil servants who have benefited from affirmative-action laws.

“Caste is losing its grip,” said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a dalit writer, social scientist and one-time Marxist militant who has become a leading voice urging the dalit poor to see the virtues of capitalism.

In a consumer society, Mr. Prasad argues, wealth can trump caste - at least some of the time.

Growing economies also foster urbanization, he says, allowing low-caste Indians to escape traditional village strictures. Finally, economic growth also means that the traditional merchant castes are not large enough to fill every job.

“This means other castes also have a chance” in the business world, Mr. Prasad said.

To Mr. Prasad, the new millionaires are a way to prove that dalits can make it in a globalized world.

They are, for the most part, blue-collar rich, often finding their niches in less-glamorous industries: building working-class housing developments, manufacturing immense concrete pipes, churning out cheap polyester shirts.

No one knows how many wealthy dalit entrepreneurs have emerged since India opened its economy in the early 1990s, sparking some of the world’s fastest economic growth. Hundreds certainly, maybe thousands.

Now, the dalit rich are chatting over cocktails at meetings of their own chambers of commerce and setting up booths at dalit trade fairs. Top government officials are talking about a venture-capital fund to make financing more easily available to entrepreneurs from India’s outcast communities.

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