Cooperatives man

Print edition : October 05, 2012

Verghese Kurien was fondly called the Milkman of India. The worlds largest dairy development programme he created raised India from being a milk-deficient country to the worlds largest milk producer.-V SREENIVASA MURTHY

For Verghese Kurien (1921-2012), the creator of Operation Flood, the worlds largest dairy development programme, the dairy farmer remained the focus of his working life.

Father of the White Revolution in India; winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1963; awardee of the Padma Shri in 1965, the Padma Bhushan in 1966, and the Padma Vibhushan in 1999; winner of the Krishi Ratna Award and the Wateler Peace Prize Award of the Carnegie Foundation in 1986; a World Food Prize laureate in 1989; and the International Person of the Year in 1993 as adjudged by the World Dairy Expo held at Wisconsin, United States. Straightforward biographical data like these present only a part of the portrait that was Verghese Kurien.

Born in Kozhikode, Kerala, Kurien graduated in physics from Loyola College, Madras (Chennai), in 1940. He did his B.E. (Mechanical) from the University of Madras and joined the Tata Steel Technical Institute in Jamshedpur. He then went to Michigan State University, U.S., to study dairy engineering, but managed to study metallurgy and nuclear physics, which were his real interests.

After returning in 1949, he joined the Dairy Department and was sent to the Government Research Creamery in Anand, Gujarat. He landed in the middle of a battleground. The newly formed cooperative dairy, Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers Union, and the privately owned Polson Dairy were jousting for first place. It was a scenario built for Kurien, who quit his safe government job in late 1949 and offered his services to Tribhuvandas Patel, the founder and chairman of the Kaira cooperative. Kurien took over the cooperative in 1950.

In 1965, the National Dairy Development Board was created by the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Kurien was the natural leader for this and was given the mandate of recreating the Amul pattern of cooperatives nationwide. In 1973, he set up the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) to sell products produced by other dairies under the brand name Amul. And in 1979, the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, or IRMA, was born. Created to educate professionals who would work in rural management, IRMA was a natural culmination of years of Kuriens work.

A character

There was more to Kurien than just a series of qualifications and a string of awards. He was a memorable person, a character, if one may say so. His wit, sarcasm, astute observation, grasp of situations and complete disregard for propriety for proprietys sake resulted in memorable and sometimes coarse anecdotes, many of which he relates in his autobiography I Too Had a Dream.

He was never in awe of position or power and minced no words when angered. A run-of-the-mill press conference in Mumbai some years ago suddenly perked up when Kurien recounted a story about a New Zealand official dismissing Indian milk product exports to her country. Annoyed at the officials tone and dismissive words, Kurien retorted, If all the people of India decide to spit at New Zealand, it would drown your island country. Hardly words that one would expect from a man of his position, but then, that was Kurien.

Fondly called the Milkman of India, a title he was proud to have, he was the creator of Operation Flood, the worlds largest dairy development programme. It raised India from being a milk-deficient country to the worlds largest producer of milk. As Kurien told this correspondent some years ago, the idea was to literally flood homes with milk and simultaneously create a flood of prosperity for dairy farmers as well. It was a winner from the start and as the Chairman of the GCMMF, he made the Amul brand of dairy products a household name.

Amul's tribute to its founder.-

For Kurien, the dairy farmer remained the focal point of his decision making. As Amuls success grew, it became increasingly difficult for Kurien to see to the farmers interests. Political involvement in Amul was inevitable, although it has to be said that Kurien was able to achieve what he did because of some liberal-minded, forward-thinking politicians of the time. He, however, largely saw them as greedy obstructionists. At a meeting in Anand some years ago, Kurien told this correspondent that if he had his way he would load all politicians onto a rocket and see that they orbited the earth forever. Why not just send them to another planet, he was asked. No, he replied, there may be other life forms there that they could exploit. Better to let them look down at earth and see the success of Amul but be unable to interfere with or exploit it.

This irreverent side of him endeared him to his friends, made a god of him with the underprivileged farmers for whom he stood up and angered his enemies, some of whom were powerful. The bull-in-a-china-shop approach that he frequently adopted did not stop him from achieving a great deal. He set up some of Indias best institutions, including the IRMA, the National Dairy Development Board and the GCMMF. All are owned by farmers and managed by professionals.

The criticism of Kurien has been almost as great as the praise he received. One recurring fault, according to his critics, was his inability to give credit where it was due and his determination to be the only face and voice of Amul. Towards the end of his career controversies broke out like a rash and in 2006, he resigned as the GCMMFs chairman following disagreements with the management. He had headed the organisation for 33 years. His protege Amrita Patel and he had a public spat over the corporatisation of the cooperative sector.

His personality was an inspiration to a variety of people, among them film-maker Shyam Benegal who made Manthan based on Kuriens achievement. It used to delight Kurien to recount how the GCMMFs farmers each paid Rs.2 as a contribution for producing the film since Benegal was unable to raise the finances.

Kurien went to Anand in 1949 and remained close to it until he passed away on September 9 at the age of 90. He considered himself a local and laughed about his early days when he was refused rented accommodation by the vegetarian Gujaratis who did not want a meat-eating Malayalee in their homes. He lived close to the IRMA and said he never regretted settling there.

A paragraph from his autobiography sums up his life in his own words: I opted to remain an employee of farmers all my life, not because I could not get a job in the city of Bombay or any other city anywhere else. It was only because I felt that I had the best job that I could ever get. Nor did I do it out of any great nobility of characterI did it because I realised I had a job which gave me the greatest pleasure, the greatest satisfaction. The idea of working for a large number of farmers translated itself into a concept of working for social good. I soon realised that money is not the only satisfaction that one can seek, that there are several other forms of satisfaction and all of these were available to me at Anand.

His life and passing is well summed up by @shyamsunder13, who tweeted, Thank u kurien for making india a butter place.

But the last word has to go to the iconic Amul girl who wept for the first time since her creation in 1967. In the advertisement released by Amuls advertising agency daCunha Communications, she said: Thank you for giving us hausla, pragati and Anand. Morale building, progress and peace: a good formula for success.

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