“Women have to harness their power – it’s absolutely true. It’s just learning not to take the first no. And if you can’t go straight ahead, you go around the corner.” ~Cher
At a glittering function in Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kalpana Saroj, chairperson of Kamani Tubes, walks up to the President of India to receive her Padma Shri for Trade and Industry in 2013. Today, the company she runs is worth Rs 68 crore, and her office is the room that was once the boardroom of the Kamani group, at Kamani Chambers, in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate, a stone’s throw from the building that houses Mukesh Ambani. She hasappointed to the board of directors of Bhartiya Mahila Bank, a bank primarily for women, by the government of India.
Can you believe that this is the same woman who was born to grinding poverty in Akola in Maharashtra, was married at 12 although her burning ambition was to study, and ran away from abusive in-laws at 14 when they would not let her study beyond class 9. She lived in Mumbai earning Rs 2 a day doing small tailoring jobs.
Kalpana Saroj with President
“The first time I came to Mumbai, I did not even know where to go. I was from such a small village. Today my company has two roads named after it in the city,” she says, summing up the extent to which her life has transformed. She moved to Mumbai to be with her husband who was 10 years older, but was shocked to find herself living in a slum. But that was not the only hardship she had to endure.”I was treated badly by my husband’s elder brother and his wife. They would pull my hair and beat me, sometimes over little things. I felt broken with all the physical and verbal abuse,” she says.
Leaving a husband is widely frowned upon in Indian culture, but Kalpana was able to escape the violent relationship, thanks to her supportive father. When he visited her in Mumbai, he was shocked to see his daughter in distress and wearing torn clothes and took her back home. Many villagers were suspicious of her return, viewing Kalpana as a failure. She tried to ignore the judgmental comments thrown at her, focusing instead on getting a job.Kalpana talks about the lowest point in her life when she tried to kill herself by drinking pesticide, because she didn’t want to face the taunts of villagers. She learnt tailoring as a way to make money. She worked 16 hours a day, a routine she has not managed to shake off to this day.
Tailoring jobs helped her earn enough to expand her business Once she approached a local political leader to help her get a loan of Rs. 50,000, so that she could start a business. To her utter disappointment, he asked for a commission of Rs 10,000 She took a government loan to open a furniture business and expand her tailoring work. Describing her period of struggle she said” Gradually, I began to help people in various matters, including a litigation case over a plot of land where people like me were wronged. This eventually encouraged me to enter the real estate business and a few other businesses like a sugar factory in Ahmednagar.By this time my boutique business had grown and from the profits of this business I invested in a furniture business and a beauty parlor. The going for me was getting to be good”
In the following years, she remarried, this time to a fellow furniture businessman, and had two children. She ploughed her savings into buying land that she later sold. Her big break was to buy a disputed piece of land which she nursed out of disputes, following the file through the corridors of Mumbai’s labyrinthine government departments tenaciously. She set up a business complex there called Kohinoor: in the dim hope that one day, she would be able to buy something close to the most valuable diamond in the world. She eventually did put up a building on the site .She called it Kohinoor Plaza, after the world’s biggest diamond. Along the way she says she faced threats from local mafia who weren’t pleased to see someone they saw as an interloper getting into the property business.
After her building plans were passed, a man came to her warning that a contract for 500,000 rupees had been made for killing her, and that she had better get out of town, he said. She went to the police station and reported the threat to the cops, who rounded up the goons whose names she says she had managed to get out of the man who told her about the contract.“Then the matter got solved,” she said.
She sold Kohinoor Plaza in 2000 and channelized that money into other land deals. Ms. Saroj says that because of that she got a reputation as a woman who could help people in Mumbai solve complicated problems.”If you give your heart and soul to your job and never give up, things can happen for you,” she says. It is a mantra that has helped Kalpana through the worst of times and still rings true for her.
What caught her eye were large advertisements put by IDBI for the sale of Kamani Tubes in Kurla, set up by a venerable Gujarati family that was once right up there with the Tatas and Birlas. Designed to manufacture copper-alloy tubes and pipes, the unit closed down in 1985 but reopened in 1988 on a Supreme Court order and was handed over to a workers’ cooperative society. But the workers couldn’t run it either and in 1995, it was on the verge of liquidation, with even BIFR having thrown up its hands.The workers came to her in 2005 and begged her to take it over. Many were Dalits. “The situation was so bad that they hadn’t been paid for months. Many had no money even for food and medicines. I felt I needed to do something,” she says.
She went to IDBI and they agreed to make her the President. She had to start looking after the day-to-day management of the company immediately. The more she unraveled the company’s affairs, the deeper was her despair. “The company had no assets. The land it was standing on was rented. Its building housed government tenants who were paying rent of 25 paise and 50 paise a month. And for obvious reasons, no one wanted to touch the company until they got back what was already owed to them” she says. “We didn’t even have the money to hire security services to guard the machinery which was being stolen by the workers themselves as scrap to pay for food.”
Saroj’s priority was to secure trust — of the workers, the creditors and lending agencies. A long slog followed with Saroj going from office to office, begging for a break, just one chance. She looks back with gratitude at all the help that did come. The red letter day was the day she retired the debt of the company. Sometime last year, newspapers reported her meeting with the former owner, now in his 80s, Navinbhai Kamani. Saroj handed him a cheque for Rs 51 lakh — his dues, including provident fund, as part of the restructuring of KTL.
“Navinbhai’s financial condition was precarious; and I think the money did him some good,” she was quoted as saying. KTL may make a small book profit this year. The Kamani brand is selling in west Asia through Al Kamani in Kuwait and Kalpana Saroj LLC in Dubai to cater to the huge demand for copper tubes, especially from the water and sanitation sector.” The company is expecting a turnover of Rs. 80 crore from the tubes business and about Rs. 60 crore from the recently started steel business. All my businesses together bring in Rs. 300 crore today. I must tell you here that I knew nothing about the business of making tubes. I put everything at stake—my name, my money and more, with Kamani Tubes. My ideology has been to always do the best I can and do it for others “said Saroj.
Apart from business, Kalpana Saroj has keen interest in Education. All the year round more than 2000 students are benefited through services rendered by institutions sponsored by her which provide library, hostel and financial help to the needy students.
Kalpana Saroj works actively for the upliftment of the Adivasis, destitute children, aged and infirm. She took up the cudgel against racism and caste discrimination. Kalpana Saroj’s efforts for the upliftment of the downtrodden masses, has been eulogized in the local as well as international press and Television time and again.
She has fulfilled her responsibilities towards her family .Her daughter is studying hotel management in London and her son is training to become a pilot in the US. She plans to set up an aviation academy in Maharashtra, because there aren’t enough opportunities for Dalit children in India. Along the way she paid for the weddings of a younger brother and sister and gifted them an apartment each.
Ms. Saroj puts her success down to her persistence – she says she is unwilling to believe she can’t do something once she sets her mind to it. “There are many roads,” she said. “If one way doesn’t work out I try to think of another way. If that doesn’t work, I think of yet another.”