In a one-on-one with VCCircle, Avichal Dhiwar, promoter of Pune-based manufacturer of packaged drinking water, 20th March Ventures Pvt Ltd, charts his journey from the Pune University campus, where he used to operate a small photocopying outlet, to becoming the owner of a packaged drinking water brand. He also shares his views about the challenges faced by Dalit entrepreneurs. Edited Excerpts:
How did your journey as an entrepreneur begin?
I do not come from a business family and did not even know what a private limited company means. I am a graduate. I began with a communication centre at (Savitribai Phule) Pune University. I was involved in social and political activities. Now, I have ventured into packaged drinking water with a plant capacity of 100,000 litres per shift. Our brand is called 20th March (On 20 March, 1927, Bhimrao Ambedkar had launched a movement to allow untouchables to use water in a public tank).
How easy was it for you to get funding? And why did you approach the IFCI fund?
Despite having complete paperwork, we faced a lot of problems getting loans from banks. They made it so tough for us that we eventually realised that they had no intention of extending us any loan. Then we heard of the IFCI fund and simply uploaded our documents on their portal. Within eight days, two officials visited us for assessment and, soon after, our funding was approved.
Till now, IFCI has pumped in Rs 4.55 crore into our business and Indian Bank has invested Rs 63 lakh, while as promoters we have put in Rs 3.8 crore.
Why do you think the bulk of successful applicants for the IFCI Venture Fund for Dalits are from Maharashtra and Hyderabad?
That is so, because political movements for the upliftment of scheduled castes actually succeeded in these areas as part of the Ambedkar movement. Therefore, the community in these two states is ahead of the rest. In states like Uttar Pradesh, people from the scheduled castes simply do not have the proper documentation required to obtain venture capital funding. Even general category people will find it tough to get the documentation done.
Do you actively employ people from the Dalit community? Do you believe in affirmative action?
No, not at all. It is only based on merit. People from all castes work for us. Unlike several Dalit businessmen, we do not hide our caste. We are very clear that we have to live with self-respect and have to prove that we can excel once we get the opportunity. Social upliftment in India is not easy. You have to prove yourself.
As for affirmative action, why do you think I have named the product 20th March? It basically implies that a Dalit, who was not allowed to draw water from a well, is now selling you packaged mineral water.
As a Dalit, have you faced active discrimination when it comes to business activities?
Of course there is active discrimination. To begin with, banks do not want to finance.
Has the formation of a lobby group like DICCI helped?
Not really. It has, in fact, been counter-productive. How can a community that does not have industries, have a chamber of commerce? You are actually telling the world that we have already arrived. It is a political banner with an anti-reservation objective. They are trying to project that the scheduled castes are already economically strong. Yet, the IFCI fund does not have enough claimants. Instead of a chamber, we required to have incubation centres.
What are the biggest hurdles that people looking to get funding from IFCI are facing?The biggest hurdle is IFCI’s stringent eligibility criteria. We have advised them to relax it.
Moreover, it is basically like a bank, with lower interest rates. Banks finance businesses at 13-14%, and IFCI does it at 10% for Dalits. Just as procurement rules have been relaxed for companies that are coming up under Start-Up India, the same should be done for Dalit businessmen who are just starting out.
Should there be reservations in the private sector?
Yes. Since government jobs are fewer now, private sector is the main employer. So, there should be reservation.
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