Posts Tagged ‘brass ring syndrome’

Breaking the caste barrier: Aspirations, upward mobility and the brass ring

We don’t talk about this much. India’s caste system is an intangible barrier to upward mobility. We assume the ‘untouchables’ are a one lumpen mass of poor. Is the post liberalization economic growth finally offering opportunities for change?

“Post-liberalization, the country witnessed a transition from the caste-based occupations and services to modern businesses. Looking at so many self-made people from different communities across the country, aspirations among more and more people started rising, they started taking risks and are now competing with the market (irrespective of the caste),” says Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), an organization that brings together all the Dalit entrepreneurs in India under one umbrella.

According to DICCI, there are more than 30 Dalit crorepatis (billionaires) in the country.

Although, there is no reliable data on the profile of scheduled caste entrepreneurs, as per rough estimates of DICCI, there are 1,000 Dalit entrepreneurs with combined turnover of Rs.60,000 crore.

Reading Siddhant Kumar’s story reminds me of CK Prahalad’s immortal words on the tyranny of dominant logic.

ckptyranny1Taking this concept a step further, we can say the same about Indian beliefs. Innovation was a top down process, designers came from elite English educated families. Instead, what we have here, is a designer from IIT Bombay who breaks the rules.

“While all entrepreneurs in India face obstacles because of lack of credit from the formal banking system, potential Dalit entrepreneurs are doubly handicapped because they almost invariably lack the collateral and also because of their more limited access to informal credit through community networks,” according to the book Defying the Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs by Devesh Kapur, D.Shyam Babu and Chandra Bhan Prasad.

Note that the very same tools inspiring young Africans to break free of their expected roles (jobs in government) and start online businesses, are what offered Kumar his break – e-commerce, and dreams of the brass ring.

NB: It isn’t just the Dalit who face caste based discrimination, every caste faces prejudice and stereotypes, so much so that my father too dropped the caste marker from my name and gave me his middle name. We are Gupta, the greedy, grasping, miserly moneylenders of middle India.

The Brass Ring Syndrome: When prosperity is close enough to make a jump for it!

We’ve been talking about that borderline where one goes from “destitute” or “BoP” towards becoming “emerging global middle class” or the AfDB’s “Sub Saharan middle class” since the common band that overlaps both categories is the ever popular $2-$4 a day and it is proportionally the largest segment of the population in most newly emerging economies. I am going to try and describe these GEMs – global emerging middle classes.

What we don’t ask ourselves in all these conversations on emerging markets or emerging consumers is where exactly have they emerged from or what state are they in the process of leaving. It is usually the lower income category or country or LDC labeling or the BoP segment at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid. Its upward mobility for a nation state or region or demographic segment of the population.

Worldwide momentum of changes signal tipping point for shift into BoP minority

Now, this is happening on a global scale, that enough momentum has occurred with all our poking and prodding at the bottom, whether through sustainable development or BoP enterprising women in some form. One could say that there is no impact at all of all these puny pilots all beavering away in their little remote villages, country towns and livestock markets, maybe achieving the social impact of a flea on the back of the Indian rural poverty elephant or one might wonder if all of this activity, taken together, synergized into this faint rumbling of an imminent global change about to take place.

Finally, enough people in enough places have managed to lift themselves free of the gravity well sucking them down into completely insecure and uncertain relationship with the poverty line (aka the next meal or three for the entire family) that they can plan ahead for the next purchase or investment in their future economic status and social standing. One is not independent of the other, especially not in the closely knit, hyper local social networks in rural regions of the developing world.

This photograph is one such example that encapsulates this kind of liminal rural economic behaviour, particularly in the developing world. Here I choose Bobbi Schaetti’s definition of liminal space, taking meaning from the root word limnos, which is Greek for the threshold time – when what was is over but what will be is not yet. Schaetti considers it a time rich with creative fomentation and full of potential, fairly bursting with the energies of the new and improved aka innovation.

Is not pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, like thousands of Kenya’s smallholder farmers, the equivalent of innovation in quality of life and circumstance? Are you not seeking a whole new level of lifestyle thus adopting a sustainable change in the way you currently live?

This is just a hypothesis that I hope to validate in the next opportunity. Because if we are able to use the tools from the design planner’s toolkit in order to understand economic behaviour and activity in the very human and flexible rural economy which is primarily based on tangible evidence of wealth, value and Returns on Investment (RoI).

Answer at bottom of page: What is the photograph telling us?

This is a light fixture and lampshade that has been affixed to the ceiling of the homestead’s main living room in a solidly bourgeois farming neighbourhood in Mwingi, Eastern Kenya. The household is dependent primarily on agriculture, thus living on seasonal cycles of abundance and scarcity per the harvests. But they’re now ready to make that leap for the last mile to the electric grid – this connection from homestead to the nearest Kenya Power grid might cost as little as 30,000 shillings, the price of a prize cow, or as much as a 100,000 if you are just a wee bit short of the distance they will cover with their equipment.  We’ve met a local teacher who managed to install an additional pole for the electric wires within his homestead walls.

Here, the entire homestead has been wired for electricity and so, a visible symbol proclaims to the community and neighbourhood what the family is aiming for in the next opportune moment that such a lumpsum of cash is available free and clear.

Reaching such a point, imho, implies that all else is in readiness for this status jump up from low income or lower class if one considers schoolteachers, civil servants, bank managers etc are considered the rural elite. They first to install solar power in their homes in order to enjoy the latest mod cons and gadgets. This signal itself, however, might be country or region specific. What we can feel certain about however is that there will be such a set of culture and region specific signals or cues, appropriate to the local context, that will signal as visibly the ongoing intent of this household to emerge into the global middle classes as customers and consumers of goods and services that improve one’s quality of life.

That is, now consumption patterns should change to include those which contribute to lifestyle choices and indulgence or convenience just enough more, on a regular basis, than those who live hand to mouth for survival’s sake. Another way that one can look at this distinction is to ask if the person is able to treat oneself regularly (whether its monthly near payday or every weekend to meat for the family dinner) or if this treat is random, uncertain and rare.