Teachers forced him to sit apart from other students. Employers sometimes didn’t bother to pay him. Hari Kishan 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.
Unable to continue his education, the young Hari Kishan Pippal worked as a labourer in three different companies in Faridabad. That was before he used to make Rs.60 a month at the Agra airport spraying khas-curtains with water in scorching sun. His father suffered a stroke when he was in Class X. To earn money, he borrowed a cycle rickshaw from a cousin and plied in the evenings, covering his face with a cloth so that no one recognised him. Later, he found work at Jainson Auto Industries in Agra, earning Rs.80 a month.
so he had to go to work pulling a rickshaw to support the family. His first break came when he married a Dalit woman from a slightly better-off family that owned a small shoe workshop.
Mr Pippal shifted the focus of his father-in-law’s workshop, concentrating on high-quality shoes and teaching himself languages – English, Tamil, Punjabi, Russian, German – to sell his goods more widely.
One day, he took loan of Rs.15,000 from Punjab National Bank and plunged into shoe business. It changed his life forever. He ran from pillar to post to get an order for 10,000 pairs of shoes from the Government-run State Trading Corporation of India Limited this order was for export purposes.
In those days, foreign trade was not yet open and even shoes could be sold abroad only through a Government Enterprise. Hari worked day and night to complete the order on time.
The bank which had found him to extent a loan of Rs.15000 to Rs.5 lakh within a couple of years. Within three years he had bought a place in the Jawahar Nagar Locality of Agra, which he used as his residence cum workshop. Today, People’s Export Private Limited manufactures 2.5 lakh pairs of shoes every year, which are sold in England, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.
After his initial success, Hari worked for India’s leading retailer and manufacturer of shoes, Bata, manufacturing their North Star Brand of shoes. The company would give him the design and raw material, and Hari would complete the order.
A decade ago, dalit businessmen regularly changed their last names, since these almost always identify someone’s caste. Even Pippal did it at first, playing off the pronunciation of his name and calling his first company “People’s Exports” to mask his caste background.
Today, he owns a 300-worker factory where 500 handmade shoes are turned out every day, then packed into boxes already marked with prices in euros and British pounds. The expensive ones retail for as much as US$500 a pair.
At first glance, he started Heritage Hospital doesn’t look state-of-the-art. Pippal’s office has stained green carpeting and paint coming away in bubbly clumps. But it is cleaner and has more resources than the public hospitals most Indians must rely upon. Pippal proudly ticks off its assets: 150 beds, 187 doctors, a range of care from oncology to plastic surgery.
He used his profits to start a small Honda dealership, then the hospital. Immense profits are being made in India’s private healthcare industry, as the new middle class seeks alternatives to the often-questionable care at most public hospitals.
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 neighbourhood of high walls and wrought-iron gates. He’s still a long way from being a billionaire, but says his businesses have a total turnover of about $12 million a year.
“In my heart I am dalit But with good clothes, good food, good business, it is like I am high-caste,” he said, 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!”