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Milkman of India

Milkman of India I Too Had a Dream by Verghese Kurien; as told to Gouri Salvi; Roli Books, Delhi, 2005;
B S BAVISKAR Just as Amul and Mother Dairy have become household names all over India, the creator of these brands Verghese Kurien has also gained popularity. While he is now acclaimed as the


Milkman of India

I Too Had a Dream

by Verghese Kurien; as told to Gouri Salvi; Roli Books, Delhi, 2005; pp xiv + 250, Rs 395.


ust as Amul and Mother Dairy have become household names all over India, the creator of these brands Verghese Kurien has also gained popularity. While he is now acclaimed as the “milkman of India”, “India’s dairy king” and the father of India’s white revolution, not many believed that he would succeed when he launched Operation Flood in 1970. For a variety of reasons, milk production had been moribund and it seemed unlikely that a major spurt could be achieved. However, in less than two decades, milk production increased from 21 million tonnes per annum to more than 70 million tonnes, making India the world’s largest milk producer. The per capita availability of milk doubled, from 107 grams to 214 grams per day. From being a net importer of milk products, India became an exporter. Widely perceived as the chief architect of this transformation, Kurien was invited by other developing countries to replicate the miracle.

This book is a story of Kurien’s professional life as told to Gouri Salvi, a freelance journalist, and reads like an autobiography, albeit ghost-written, of the great man. There are a few details about his family background, and affectionate references to his wife and daughter, but the book really focuses on Kurien’s career as a dairy man. The recounting of this life story is also a way of narrating the story of dairy development in India. As the book shows, the careers of Kurien and the cooperative dairy sector in India are inseparable.

Highlighting Kurien’s enormous contributions to dairy development in India acquires a particular significance at this juncture, when his authority is being challenged at a number of levels. In effect, there has been a rebellion from below in the very organisations that he founded or headed for decades. Kurien had relinquished the chairpersonship of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in 1998 and had successfully installed his protégé Amrita Patel in that post, despite opposition from the bureaucracy in Delhi. But soon after, the media reported major differences between Kurien and Patel. Amul, the brand of the then Kuriencontrolled Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), and NDDB, through its wholly-owned subsidiary Mother Dairy, had a public falling out in 2002-03 over the latter’s decision to start joint-venture marketing companies with state-level milk federations. Kurien opposed this as a move that would transfer power from cooperatives to the government, a form of “back-door privatisation”. These differences also resulted in Amul and Mother Dairy breaking their pact not to sell rival products in each other’s territory. Amul milk and ice cream entered Delhi markets, competing with Mother Dairy products, surely a sign of the disarray within a dairy movement established to fend off multinationals.

In what must be a major blow, Kurien’s life-long control over the GCMMF has also been taken away. Faced by a noconfidence motion, Kurien was forced to resign from the chairpersonship of the GCMMF. He had been the federation’s founder and chairperson for 33 years, and had overseen its growth into a giant with an annual turnover of Rs 30,000 crore. A similar unseemly public controversy has erupted over his chairpersonship of the Institute of Rural Management at Anand (IRMA), another institution that he had founded. Beleaguered by criticism and adverse publicity, Kurien could well have used this book as a way of responding to his detractors. However, there is no mention of the controversies dogging him at the tail end of his life. By simply recounting his life’s works, Kurien asserts his commitment to the cause of the cooperative movement and the Indian farmer. In this there is perhaps an implicit rebuke to his critics who would forget his impeccable credentials as the foremost face of the cooperative dairy industry in India.

Kurien is a master story-teller. He describes his start as a reluctant recruit in 1946, compelled by the terms of a government of India scholarship to study dairy engineering in the US. On his return, he was trapped in a boring government job in what was then a small town, Anand, in Gujarat. A chance incident brought him close to Tribhuvandas Patel, a prominent local Congress leader, struggling to establish a cooperative society of milk producers. Patel convinced Kurien to become the manager of this cooperative, later named Amul. The rest, as they say, is history. With an annual turnover of Rs 550 crore, Amul is a mega-success all over the country.

National Dairy Development BoardNational Dairy Development BoardNational Dairy Development BoardNational Dairy Development BoardNational Dairy Development Board

Another origin story, an anecdote that Kurien is fond of narrating, relates to the NDDB. In 1964, prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri visited the Amul coop area to inaugurate a cattle-feed factory in a village near Anand. Keen to understand the reasons for Amul’s success, Shastriji decided to spend the night in the village, staying with a small farmer’s family. After long discussions with the villagers and with Kurien, Shastriji decided to set up a national body, NDDB, under Kurien’s chairpersonship to replicate the Amul or Anand pattern of dairy cooperatives across the country. Kurien seized this opportunity with both hands and never looked back, retiring in 1998 at the very pinnacle of a distinguished career.

Kurien enjoys fights and skirmishes in defence of his cause. He relates with glee his battles with Polson, a rival dairy privately-owned by Pestonjee Edulji. He relishes reliving his head-on confrontations with multinationals like Nestle, with bureaucrats in Mumbai and Delhi, and heavyweights like the union ministers of agriculture, Rao Birendra Singh and Jagjivan Ram. The account of his battle against the disinformation campaign launched by Nestle and other multinationals is especially interesting. Amul’s plans

Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006 of producing milk powder and cheese threatened the market control of MNCs. Knowing that Amul dairy depended almost entirely on buffalo milk, the private companies claimed that these products could be manufactured only from cow’s milk. Amul/Kurien proved them wrong and went on to become the market leader.

Arguably, Kurien’s greatest achievement was the conception and successful implementation of Operation Flood during 19701995. In the 1960s, the then European Economic Community (EEC) was confronted with overflowing stocks of milk powder and butter oil, which they sought to donate as “aid” to developing countries including India. While the free distribution of these products may indeed have improved nutritional levels among the poor, Kurien was apprehensive about its effects on milk prices. Free availability was a form of “dumping” that would depress prices for milk producers, adversely affecting their ability to produce, and worsening India’s dependence on imports in the long run. Kurien proposed that India accept the donated milk products but, instead of distributing them free, sell them at existing market prices, using the funds thus generated to help augment Indian farmers’ production by providing better cattlefeed, veterinary services and market support. Kurien’s vigorous advocacy resulted in an agreement between the Indian government and the EEC creating the world’s largest programme of dairy development. Through the NDDB, Mother Dairy units were set up in metropolitan cities, supplied by a national grid with 170 milksheds, involving 10 million milk producers, organised through 73,000 dairy cooperative societies. Within 25 years, the entire profile of the dairy industry in India was transformed.

Dedicated to FarmersDedicated to FarmersDedicated to FarmersDedicated to FarmersDedicated to Farmers

This book brings out not only the enormous energy that Kurien devoted to his mission, but also his deep conviction of being dedicated to the cause of the farmers. Whether Operation Flood has indeed served the interests of the poorest sections of rural society has been questioned by Shanti George and others. Kurien also asserts his faith in the democratic structure of farmer-controlled cooperatives as the best way to bring about economic and social development in rural areas. Countering charges that technocrats and managers controlled Amul and NDDB, Kurien declares that he is proud to have worked as a servant of the 50,000 farmers of Kheda district.

What is indisputable is that Kurien has consistently and with remarkable success, defended milk producers from private firms, powerful multinational corporations, and government bureaucrats. He has done so by employing a combination of shrewd political acumen and principled pragmatism in his dealings with powerful actors and agencies, together with a remarkable degree of control over “his” organisations. Totally professional and dedicated to his work, Kurien sets high standards that his co-workers are compelled to meet. Under Kurien, Amul, NDDB, GCMMF and IRMA all ran with impressive efficiency and were considered as role models for public sector institutions. Most remarkable is the fact that, although these cooperatives handled business worth thousands of crores of rupees and had thousands of employees spread all over India, there has never been even a whisper of financial irregularities or corruption. This is a rare achievement in a country where most enterprises, governmental or non-governmental, stink with corruption, scams and scandals. This remarkable record can be attributed to Kurien’s close watch on each and every operation, and his keen eye for detail. At the same time, this creates a form of authoritarianism and possessiveness that lies at the heart of the present controversies. Clearly, Kurien cares enormously for India’s farmers. But in not distinguishing between his own interests and those of farmers and the Indian public at large, Kurien may be doing the latter a disservice.

Being overprotective of the organisations that he founded and nurtured made Kurien hostile to independent social science research. This antagonism was worst during the Operation Flood period. Social scientists in general and development specialists in particular, were keen to study the impact of a large scale, high profile project like Operation Flood. NDDB’s claims about the project as a panacea, one that would not only make India self-sufficient in milk production but would reduce poverty and promote inter-caste cooperation and women’s empowerment, demanded critical scrutiny. With considerable investment and prestige at stake, NDDB officials made it clear that only research which guaranteed favourable findings would be permitted. Research, for them, was not for improving knowledge

Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

and understanding as much as for propaganda and promotion.

Kurien’s hostility to independent research not only expressed itself in gatekeeping and denying access to researchers, but extended to persecution and ad hominem attacks on those considered “enemies” of NDDB. This reviewer was at the receiving end of NDDB’s campaign of hostilities when he found that NDDB intervened to prevent him and his colleague D W Attwood from working as consultants to evaluate coop dairy programmes in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh respectively. Baviskar and Attwood’s comparative project on cooperatives, which was funded by the International Development Research Centre (of Canada), came under fire as Kurien exerted pressure through the Canadian high commissioner and through the Indian government to scuttle it.1 Strenuous efforts were made to prevent Shanti George, a known critic of Operation Flood, from studying a dairy cooperative in Gujarat although that cooperative was not even a part of the Operation Flood programme. Kurien wrongly reports that she apologised for being wrong in her assessment of Operation Flood (p 162). Independent assessments of Operation Flood by George and others which, in an open-minded organisation would have sparked off reflection and self-correction, leading to improvements in implementation, were attacked on grounds of being motivated and against the national interest. This refusal to allow public scrutiny, however wrongheaded and short-sighted, was consistent with Kurien’s determination to protect “his” organisations at all costs.

All the same one has to recognise that Kurien has a great deal to be proud of. The Gujarat dairy cooperatives stand out as a shining example in the current development scenario. The contrast with Maharashtra’s sugar cooperatives is both striking and instructive. At one time, Maharashtra boasted of successful sugar cooperatives that were controlled entirely by local farmers, and not by bureaucrats or technocrats. But what was once a vibrant connection between cooperatives and state politics has now become a stranglehold. Local leaders have undermined cooperatives by using them as pawns in their political games, to establish dynastic control and to garner political gains in state level electoral politics. Increasing corruption has worsened the sickness of the sugar industry. The Maharashtra sugar story is a salutary reminder of the promises as well as perils that cooperatives are subject to. It is to Kurien’s credit that he has steered the Gujarat and Indian dairy cooperatives onto a more successful path. In this he was undoubtedly aided by a favourable political environment, and by the backing of influential local and national political leaders, but a great deal of the achievement is the result of his indefatigable work.

Kurien has received much public recognition honouring his work, including the Ramon Magsaysay award, the Watler Peace Prize, the World Food Prize and the Padma Vibhushan. He has been felicitated with honorary doctorates by several universities in India and abroad. All of these make even more unfortunate the unsavoury note on which his career has ended. Kurien deserved a more graceful exit from his empire and should have retired on time with dignity. As a shrewd player in the politics of organisations, he could have anticipated the ill effects of not doing so.

This book is a must-read for all those interested in cooperatives and rural development. Email:



1 These attempts to stymie independent research have been discussed in B S Baviskar and D W Attwood, Finding the Middle Path: The Political Economy of Cooperation in Rural India, Westview Press, Boulder, 1995; and Sage Publications, Delhi, 1996, pp 37-40.

Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

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