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Customers many, locals very few

The first dalit-owned hotel in Nuapada district has a prime location: the main bus stop in Bhoden block headquarters. Transiting buses bring many customers. But the locals do not step in. The owners face a wall of caste prejudice. Still, against these odds, they have made a success of their hotel, says noted journalist P. SAINATH.


IT is a hotel where some customers never return. Not even if they find the food and service good. It gets a fair number of patrons daily. Almost all from out of town. Most locals will not step into it. Its young owners are polite, educated and run a clean place. But in some of Bhoden's other restaurants, they would themselves not be welcome.

It is mainly snacks and tea here, these days. They did serve decent meals once. But the demand for that fell when people found out who was doing the cooking. Welcome to "Hotel Raj Kumar", the first eating place in all of Nuapada district that is owned by dalits. "We have only been around a year," says Raj Kumar Nag. "So far, it is going well. We get 100 to150 customers each day." Raj and his brother Gangadhar jointly own the place with their father Parasuram. The idea was the brainchild of the senior Nag. But it goes by Raj's name.

It is a recent construction and a bit ramshackle, though not more so than any other such joint in the area. Its facade is unimpressive. Inside, however, it has a certain tidy newness about it. As in much of rural India, the smallest teashop or dhabba is called a "hotel".

Its big advantage is its location: right at the main bus stop in Bhoden block headquarters. This is in many ways the most backward and desolate part of Nuapada district. Perhaps of all of old Kalahandi. Transiting buses carry a fair number of passengers who need some place to eat during the halt in Bhoden. The "Hotel Raj Kumar" is the first thing they see when they get off the bus.

"I realised my tiny piece of land here was a prime spot," says Parasuram Nag. "And the boys needed some work. They could expect no help from the government. And there was nothing else to do. I have four sons and one girl, but just six acres of land. Here, that gives us very little. So I thought: better they try this hotel idea than just sit around doing nothing."

Gangadhar has a bachelor's degree. Raj Kumar has studied up to the Plus 2 stage. Yet, neither found a job. "I tried at the soil conservancy department," says Gangadhar. "Then in the reserve police. I was turned down both times. I next took a shot at a teacher's post. My last try was for a slot as a multi-purpose health worker. When both those failed, I gave up."

"I did not make it to the police either," says Raj Kumar. "Nor as a lower level Revenue Divisional clerk." After being turned down from a number of other jobs, he too quit trying. But surely, educated dalit boys in this region should easily find government jobs? What about reserved posts? "It does not matter who you are," laughs Parasuram. "You still have to pay a minimum of Rs. 60,000 to get any job here. We cannot afford that."

He had a point. We had learned the same morning that a government driver's post in Nuapada had gone for a little over Rs. 80,000. The man driving our jeep had told us: "My limit was Rs. 50,000, you know. That too, after borrowing heavily. But at Rs. 80,000, I was out of the race."

Back in the hotel, we ask if they had at least got government loans as they were entitled to. "We are not eligible for any loans," says Raj Kumar.

"Call me their liability," laughs Parasuram. "I once took a loan of Rs. 12,000 for a pumpset." He had run into the bank officer- petty official-contractor nexus. Parasuram had to accept a machine someone else chose for him. "It was bad and soon broke down. When I took the pumpset to the place where it had been guaranteed, they made it worse. I was losing money on account of it. And I just could not repay the loan. So I was declared a defaulter."

That affected his sons, too. "When I applied for a loan to the 'Prime Minister's Rozgar Yojana'," says Raj Kumar, "They told me: 'forget it. Your father is a defaulter'."

So how did they raise the money for this structure, modest as it is? Interest on private loans in this region ranges from 60 to 400 per cent a year. "Our kin rallied around," says Parasuram. "A relative gave us Rs. 10,000 interest free. So we got started."

"Almost everything you see was built by us," says Raj Kumar. "A mistry did the woodwork. The rest, our family members did. Our labour was free. That is how we could afford it. This is the first such hotel, not only in Bhoden, but in all of Nuapada."

"For whatever outside labour we used," says Parasuram, "we paid in kind. That is, we exchanged crop for labour. That is how we will repay even the Rs. 10,000 loan. The hotel's profits are decent but not yet good enough to support repayment. So we will pay one part of our debt with crop; another chunk by selling off a small piece of land, that way." There are reasons profits are not yet "good enough". One is their limited experience. More important, their community has no foothold, no presence in this line. The Nags are completely outside the merchant networks that have a firm grip on the trade. "Our daily costs," says Gangadhar," are around Rs. 300." But they get few discounts or concessions on bulk purchases. So their operational costs are higher than those of their competitors. Both their rivals in Bhoden have better linkages, making their costs lower. There is one more thing. They are dalits and face a wall of prejudice.

"Our hotel is well situated, so people do come. But sometimes a person eats here and later finds out this is a Dom hotel. He might never come again," says Gangadhar. "Our rivals ask our customers: "Don't you know they are Doms? Are you leaving us to eat at a harijan hotel?"

This caused some damage. Fewer customers would accept meals in the dalit hotel. There seems to a curious unspoken logic that it is somehow okay to have tea or snacks here, but not meals. The cooking of meals has strong notions of ritual pollution attached to it. Quite vital in this semi-feudal region.

"Our bigger rival gets over 200 patrons daily. The other, about 100 customers each day." The little dalit joint cut into the clientele of both. Hence, the counterattack. "Meals began to prove uneconomical. So we had to discontinue that," says Raj Kumar. "People have tea, snacks and omelettes here, but not meals. Some of them do have meals at the other places."

They have drawn their own lesson from that. "Now we never do any cooking ourselves. Unless the customers are friends or people who we know are free of such feelings."

Another way they have tried beating "such feelings" is by appointing a Yadav youth to serve the food. His name is Gopal Bandu and he is from a village in the interior. He would have to be. Locals would not dream of doing this job.

"People do not like the idea of a dalit being an owner and doing well," says Parasuram. Of a maximum of 150 customers each day, over 130 "would be outsiders. Only 15 to 20 are locals from Bhoden." Of those 20, as many as 15 could be dalit. "The rest are mostly friends." Against these odds, the Nags have made a success of their hotel, breaking some stereotypes in the process.

We too have a problem at the "Hotel Raj Kumar", though. The stubborn refusal of its owners to accept any payment for the tea we have been swilling for hours. They know theirs is an extraordinary achievement. And seem to feel that the arrival of four journalists to hear their story is, somehow, recognition of that feat. Theirs may not be the sort of place you would find on the Good Food Guides, but for one community here it bears a prestige hard to capture.

Parasuram seems entertained by the story of the first dalit hotel in East Godavari in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. There, a Gulf returnee in the 1960's had launched a fine little restaurant. The upper castes would not enter it because it was owned by a harijan. Dalits went in large numbers and ate on credit but could not afford to pay. It collapsed within months.

"I know how he must have felt," says Parasuram. But the Nags have launched their enterprise at a different point in time. In a changing, if challenging era. "If we can sustain this level of income, I plan to add four cabins to this shack," says Parasuram. "We could expand the hotel and have a kirana dookan (general store). These are our dreams."

With a slice of luck, they could even come true.

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