Tamil Nadu, a front-ranking State in the sector of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), is witnessing a steady growth of entrepreneurs from the Scheduled Castes.
Though the number of the SC entrepreneurs is not proportionate to the share of the community in the population, it is growing. In fact, as per the 4th All India Census of MSMEs (registered sector) census undertaken in 2006-07 and published in 2011, the State had the highest number of SC-owned enterprises with 18,120, about 15.24% of such units at the all-India level. (When the Udyog Aadhaar Memorandum system of registration of enterprises came to an end in June 2020, the number of SC-owned enterprises went up to 56,047).
Relying on the census data, Milind Kamble, founder-chairman of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DICCI), told the Global Investors’ Meet in Chennai in September 2015 that the State had the largest number of SC entrepreneurs in the country. He is still quoting the data because, he says, no such census has been carried out since then. About 10 years later, only the National Sample Survey 73rd Round (2015-16) was carried out. In the subsequent years, other States had overtaken Tamil Nadu but this may be temporary in view of the non-availability of comprehensive data.
The State government is taking steps for encouraging the entrepreneurs hailing from the community, says K.S. Bhagyalakshmi, vice-president of the Tamil Nadu chapter of DICCI. Some weeks ago, the office of the State Industries Commissioner and the Director of Industries and Commerce instructed the General Managers of District Industries Centres and the Regional Joint Directors to ensure that members of the district units of the DICCI or any such body were invited for meetings of the task force committee to select beneficiaries under the New Entrepreneur-cum-Enterprise Development Scheme (NEEDS) and the Unemployed Youth Employment Generation Programme (UYEGP). Under these schemes, SC participants are given support.
Ms. Bhagyalakshmi was a beneficiary of the first batch of candidates trained under the NEEDS. Today, she is into the production of eco-friendly products such as non-woven, cloth and jute bags and training of aspiring entrepreneurs.
V. Arumugam, who hails from a village near Arakkonam, is also a NEEDS beneficiary. Running a firm in the field of fabrication material and press tool components, he was sent to Greece in 2019 for an exhibition, courtesy the Chennai regional office of the National SC/ST Hub of the Union Ministry of MSMEs.
E. Sivagamasundari, of Nellikuppam in Cuddalore, may not have so much exposure as the two, but with determination, she is pursuing the production of herbal products for the last six years. When IAS officer Gagandeep Singh Bedi was Cuddalore Collector years ago, he spotted her potential and encouraged her to start a unit for herbal products. She is taking steps to increase production capacity with a financial assistance of ₹10 lakh to buy machinery.
One can come across such entrepreneurs, who have branched into different fields, from providing logistics services to running petrol bunks to having units in textiles or food processing or agro products. There is one entrepreneur, Shobana Soundararajan of Villupuram, who is running two holiday resorts, including one in Puducherry.
However, it is not a path of roses for SC entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur, who has been running a foundry unit near Chennai for nearly 40 years, does not want to be identified as one belonging to the community. “You know why” — that is all he would say. Another entrepreneur says the problem of social discrimination in business is somewhat nuanced. About 10 years ago, he could, with great difficulty, get a site in a town of Thoothukudi district for setting up his outlet for cooking gas cylinder distribution. After some years, when he got a competitor who belonged to an intermediary caste, he could observe a good number of his customers migrating to him.
The common complaint among many entrepreneurs is the reluctance of banks to provide loans. Though an official of the State Level Bankers’ Committee (SLBC) brushes it aside, the document containing the agenda for the 168th meeting of the SLBC held in December stated about 10,370 applications were pending at the end of September 2021 for ₹139.25 crore. At a special SLBC meeting held in October, in which Chief Minister M.K. Stalin was present, Principal Secretary (Adi-Dravidar and Tribal Welfare) K. Manivasan said that despite the release of government subsidy, the applications were pending with some of the major banks.
The SC entrepreneurs refer to the arrangement by the Central government wherein out of the 25% target of annual procurement from MSMEs, 4% should be set aside for SC enterprises. They suggest that the State adopt a similar scheme. Also, Tamil Nadu can take its cue from the Karnataka scheme of 4% interest subsidy on loans sanctioned by the Karnataka State Financial Corporation for expansion or modernisation of the units owned by the SC/ST entrepreneurs. With more proactive measures, Tamil Nadu can reach the top slot in the number of units and employment generation, they say.