From dropping out of school for marriage, to resurrecting a dying company into a Rs.20-billion empire: Meet Kalpana Saroj

She may have been sadistically abused by her in-laws for minuscule mistakes in domestic chores when she was all of 12; but she returned to the very city where her story soured, and conquered everything from its streets to its skyscrapers. She may have lost a sister for a few thousand rupees, but saved a thousand more lives, by granting them financial support, livelihood, and most importantly, hope. She even waged a war against the goondas deadset on assassinating the gutsy Dalit woman entering their “turf”.

In this surreal tale, Kalpana Saroj defies death, child-marriage and an abusive childhood, survives suicide and supaari, for she was “destined” to meet the worker-owners of the sick Kamani Tubes and resurrect it into a Rs.20-billion empire.

Born to a police constable, Saroj hails from Roperkheda, a village 8 km from Akola. She studied up to the seventh grade, but proposals had begun flooding in since she was ten, as the family opined that having an unmarried daughter in the house is like “stashing a vial of poison.” Saroj was 12 when she was ordered to honour a proposal from Mumbai.  “The slum was filthy and lacked amenities. What’s worse, they were animals. They made me cook for a family of nearly ten, wash all their clothes. And for minor mistakes they would brutally beat me up,” Saroj recounts.

Six months later, her father saw her condition and took her back, but when the village shunned her for calling off a marriage, she attempted to take her own life. Saved miraculously, but still reprimanded from bringing shame to the family for attempting suicide, she then vowed to live, and live only for herself.

She returned to Mumbai and landed a job at a textile mill and worked her way to sustenance in the city of dreams. Soon, she moved her family to Mumbai. They struggled to make ends meet, but just when the grind was easing up, her sister passed away when they couldn’t pay the doctor’s bills in time. Saroj’s purpose in life changed overnight — she was now intent on earning enough money and helping those in despair.

For years, she made smart investments and strategic acquisitions of assets and amassed capital to start small to medium businesses, and rolled the money until she could lift her family out of abject poverty. As tales of her spirit became legends, the Kamani Tubes’ labour force sought her out in 2000, to revive the company from being “sick”.  Her advisors termed it a suicide mission. “But all I thought about was the plight of the workers,” she says.

She resumed the monthly wage cycles of the workers, ran an analysis of their debt, and realised that it largely constituted penalties and interest. So, in 2006, she decided to approach the then finance minister who called an all-heads meeting with the chairpersons of banks including Dena Bank, Canara Bank and Bank of India. She reasoned with them — if the company goes into liquidation, no one gets a single penny, but if the penalties are waived off, the lenders will at least recover their principal amounts. This resonated with them — the banking heads not only signed away the interest, but also agreed to deduct 25 per cent from the principal, if the money was paid back within a year — and Saroj delivered.

In the same year, she was appointed chairperson of the company, and the court transferred ownership of Kamani Tubes to her. In 2011, they left the ‘sick’ zone, and today, the company is valued at Rs.20 billion, all because Saroj selflessly put the interests of the company and its labourers before hers.

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