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Why a Dalit businessman planted mango trees in his Alibaug farmhouse

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-07-2017 Ashwaq Masoodi

New Delhi: Owning land means different things to different people. For some, it is an investment. For others, a source of livelihood. Then there are those for whom land ownership is a matter of prestige. For Sunil R. Zode, 57, owning land means having a sense of belonging, a profound feeling of attachment to the soil that no amount of wealth could ever bring. It is also his way of healing the scar of humiliation from his childhood that he has harboured for 47 years.

Zode was in Class IV when he plucked a mango from a tree in a small farm which his father, a daily labourer, had bought. As a child, Zode couldn’t comprehend why the trees on their land were owned by upper castes, if the land was tilled and maintained by his father. When he plucked the mango, the landlord’s farm caretaker beat him up, stripped him, and took away all his clothes. At 10, he was old enough to feel the insult, and also to intentionally keep alive the memory of this humiliation for the rest of his life.

Today, Zode is chairman of Conaitre Group, an enterprise comprising eight companies in sectors such as LPG distribution and pesticides, with an annual turnover of around Rs30 lakh. While traditionally Dalits were not allowed to own land, Zode now owns six acres and a farmhouse in the posh Alibaug locality in Raigad district of Maharashtra. Purchased in 2004, the current value of this land is over Rs5 crore. Zode made sure he converted most of it into a mango orchard.

“Mango orchards for long were used as a great tool of subjugation by the upper castes. So many mangoes would fall on the ground and go waste, but a Dalit was not allowed to touch it. Dalits would assemble around the trees, waiting for the upper castes to announce that they could pick the fallen fruits. Mango orchards were a status symbol in those days,” says Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit entrepreneur and writer.

In an historical speech in Agra on 23 March 1956, B.R. Ambedkar pointed out the importance and need of land ownership for Dalits. “I am much worried for the landless labourers living in the villages...The main reason for their ruin is that they do not own land. That is why they are victims of atrocities and insults. I will struggle for them and if the government creates hurdles, I will lead them and fight legal battle for them. But I will make every possible effort to get land for them,” he said.

Efforts have been made by governments in different states such as Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra to provide “land to the tillers” but even today a Dalit landlord is an exception.

In several cases when Dalits become moneyed, they make sure they buy land. In the case of Zode for instance, it isn’t as if other investment options weren’t available. But his dream was to own a piece of land. “Having some land that I have complete ownership on, has given me some sort of a satisfaction,” says Zode.

Even Ashok Khade, a businessman and one of the first Dalit millionaires, bought 150 acres of land in his native village of Sangli. And the piece of land he bought was the one on which his mother had worked for the upper castes when Khade was growing up.

In a predominantly agrarian economy, land distribution is important in determining power relations. And historically, the plight of Dalits has been mostly attributed to the absence of land reforms. Casteism, which has resulted in discrimination against so called lower castes in different ways, (like what they eat or wear or what occupations they take) has also led to discrimination in land ownership. At the all-India level, according to the 70th round of Land and Livestock Holdings Survey of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), 58.4% of rural Dalit households are landless. Landlessness is particularly severe among Dalits in Haryana, Punjab and Bihar, where more than 85% of Dalit households do not own any other than homestead land.

“To own land for me signifies that you are the son of the soil. That you belong to the land and it belongs to you... that you have something that nobody can take away from you. Coming from a farmers family, land means power to me,” says Zode.

There is a certain sense of calm and satisfaction that Zode emanates, like a man who knows the worst is over. Growing up in a poverty-ridden joint family and belonging to a low caste meant a life full of hardships. Every dream had a price. If Zode wanted to continue studying, he knew he had to earn to be able to pay his fees.

“Because of financial constraints, my priority was how to earn more, not how to get more marks in school. Because my elder brother took care of me since I was two... which is when our parents passed away... I realized early on that I have to do something to share the responsibility,” says Zode.

Born in Sahur, in Vardha district, Zode studied in the village till Class VII and then did his college and masters in labour management (MLM) from Mumbai.

Realizing that business was a relatively easier and quicker way of making money, Zode started a business of LPG dealership in 1983 with the help of a government subsidy. Until then, he had worked as an attendant in a poultry farm in Raigarh district, while he also went to college. His story is similar to many other rags-to-riches stories that began with a childhood where sleeping on an empty stomach, owning only a change of clothes, and having to suffer humiliation due to poverty, was usual. From where Zode started, dreaming big was not a natural choice. But, as he says, he kept having those conversations with himself, reminding himself again and again that he didn’t have to live the life of his parents with no steady income. All these hardships sowed the seeds of becoming a “big man”. But a big man to Zode meant someone who could generate jobs, make life easier for those who have suffered like he did, and of course someone who could earn money enough to have luxuries like a good house and cars. Zode now has a house in Bandra and several cars, including an Audi and a Mercedes.

While working in the poultry farm in Saral village, close to Alibaug, Zode would keep looking at the land around him. It was then that he decided he wanted to do something that gave him enough money to buy land in a posh locality.

Even today, every time he passes Saral on the way to his farmhouse in his Audi, Zode looks at the poultry farm which still exists. “I started my work here, and here is where I have decided to come back. It reminds me and my children of what I started from and also keeps reminding me of having my feet on the ground,” says Zode.

This is the last of a three-part series.

Part 1: From an outcast to a temple priest, the journey of Suryavanshi Das

Part 2: From manual scavenger to professor, the journey of Kaushal Panwar

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