Born into a family of pig farmers in India’s eastern Uttar Pradesh state, 58-year-old Chandra Bhan Prasad experienced firsthand the age-old prejudice of upper caste Hindus virtually shunning those from lower castes, or Dalits.
But Prasad hopes that his recently launched online food business will help break the centuries-old scourge of untouchability against the Dalits, which results in many higher castes refusing to eat food prepared by them or even letting them enter their kitchens.
Challenging such discriminatory customs, Prasad has boldly named his venture “Dalit Foods.” Begun on a modest scale in New Delhi, it offers a handful of packaged products -- spices like turmeric and chilli powder, pickles and grains.
His inspiration came while doing research for the University of Pennsylvania on what has changed in the life of Dalits since India’s economic reforms in the 1990’s. Prasad said he was taken aback to see even 80-year-old Dalits carrying heavy bundles of wheat on their head and laboring in fields.
He realized that grains such as coarse rice and millets consumed by his poor community were very healthy.
On the other hand, he worried that three deaths in his family due to cancer could have been linked to food adulteration.
“The bigger moral question that I pose before Indian society, that is of course changing, is that the people who were born pure are selling impure. I was born impure, but I am selling pure. Tell me what would you prefer, your caste or your health?” he asked.
Prasad is not just an entrepreneur. A well-known writer on Dalit issues, he has campaigned for years to end caste biases that stem from the division of Hindu society into hierarchical groups based on occupation.
Prasad says he has social, as well as business goals. He hopes that if his venture succeeds, it will encourage other young Dalits.
Although a number of Dalits have launched thriving businesses, unlike Prasad, none have linked the success of their ventures to their caste.
“If I succeed in this business, some kind of social upheaval (transformation) will be caused. New age Dalits would start believing in the system that yes, now the country belongs to us also”, he said.
There is need for such a message in a country where stories of injustices against Dalits often make headlines.
Although there has been some upward mobility in the community since India outlawed caste discrimination 65 years ago and undertook affirmative action programs by reserving college seats and government jobs for them, change has been very slow.
Beena Pallickal of the National Commission for Human Rights points to a huge gap between the rate at which the community has progressed compared to the rest of the country.
The biggest problem remains lack of social acceptance of the community. Compared to cities, the rigid social hierarchy persists more deeply in rural areas where lower castes are usually not allowed to enter temples or draw water from village wells.
Pallickal hopes ventures like Prasad's can make a difference. Calling it an “in-your-face statement”, she said it calls on people to try out a good product even it is a Dalit product. “I am looking for a world where I can claim my caste and not be discriminated against,” she said.
Prasad’s business has gotten off to a slow start, but he is heartened that most of his orders come from upper income groups. “The orders are coming from elite, people living in expensive housing societies. I had expected I would get 50 to 100 orders a day, but we are getting 10 orders a day,” he said. For the time being, that is enough to keep his business going.