By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A former rebel fighter and member of India's "untouchable" caste is taking on caste-based discrimination with packaged foods that would have been regarded as impure just decades ago.
Chandra Bhan Prasad, 58, was born into the Dalit Pasi community of pig rearers in northern India, considered untouchable in the ancient Hindu social hierarchy. Prasad and his wife recently launched 'Dalit Foods' online to sell spices, pickles and grains.
"I was born impure. But I have the right to sell pure," Prasad said by phone from his office in New Delhi.
"I grew up with segregation and untouchability, but India has changed. I want to see how those who are born pure respond to my offering," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, but centuries-old attitudes persist, and lower-caste groups including Dalits are among the most marginalized communities.
Dalits were barred from public places including temples and water tanks frequented by higher-caste Hindus. Many higher-caste Hindus considered food cooked or served by Dalits to be impure.
It is this custom that Prasad is taking aim at.
Dalit Foods sells a small range of spices and grains, including chilli powder, turmeric powder, mango pickle, barley flour and lentils. More products will be added, Prasad said.
For three years, Prasad was a fighter with India's Maoist insurgency that claims to fight for the rights of poor farmers and landless indigenous people. He became a Dalit campaigner and a champion of economic empowerment to end caste bias.
He became interested in food after three members of his family died of cancer.
"Food adulteration is a big problem, and is probably the biggest reason for our health problems today," he said.
"And yet, I saw 80-year-old Dalits who were healthy and doing hard labor, largely because of what they were eating: pure, unprocessed food," he said.
The domestic packaged food market is forecast to be worth $50 billion by 2017 from about $32 billion last year, according to the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India.
Recent food-safety scares have led to greater awareness of adulteration.
While growing up, Prasad said he and others in his community were forced to eat coarse foods that were reserved for cattle and for servants. These included unpolished rice and millets.
"Millets were considered inferior food then. Today, they are called a superfood," he said.
"We want to make Dalit foods like these popular," he said.
A large hotel chain is buying Dalit Foods on a trial basis, and the number of customers - largely urban Indians - is rising, Prasad said.
Dalits are still often the targets of violence, with tens of thousands of crimes reported each year.
Last month, thousands of Dalits in Gujarat state pledged to boycott the dirty jobs traditionally thrust upon them in protest against the lynching of Dalit men by upper-caste Hindus.
"We have made a lot of progress, but Dalits are still not equal to the upper caste," Prasad said.
"My business is a social experiment to see if India has really transformed, to see if people are willing to overcome their biases and customs for food that is pure," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)