Dr Verghese Kurien

Milkman's exit

Print edition : April 07, 2006

Verghese Kurien. His cooperative formula has worked profitably for the past 35 years. - BIJOY GHOSH

Dr. Verghese Kurien's resignation brings an end to an important era in the dairy industry and the cooperative movement.

DR. Verghese Kurien, who was responsible for ushering in India's White Revolution, had once said he would fight for the dairy cooperative movement until his last breath. For the past few years, the 84-year-old Kurien has been combating several forces, which he believes were threatening the hugely successful movement in Gujarat and a few other States. Clearly, Kurien had had enough. More significantly, he was cornered. On March 20, after a five-decade long innings, he resigned as Chairman of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) following mounting dissent against him by the board of directors.

It is an undisputed fact that Kurien has been the force behind the dairy industry in India. By applying the cooperative model to the dairy sector, he created a formula that has worked profitably for the past 35 years. As the industry grew and private players and multinationals entered the sector, Kurien became fiercely protective of the cooperative movement and Amul, the brand he helped create. It seems unlikely that the cooperative movement, which is now well established, will collapse without him. But whether it will continue in its current form with its ascending growth rate is debatable.

Kurien's resignation is seen as a pre-emptive move against the GCMMF board's plan to oust him as Chairman - a post he held for 33 years. The dairy federation board had recently decided to pass a no-confidence motion against him at an extraordinary meeting, scheduled for March 24. In an official release, Kurien said such an act pained him and therefore he felt it would be better if he left. Additionally, he said, "my decision is in deference to the recent order of the Gujarat High Court on the issue of cooption of members on the management committee of the cooperative bodies in Gujarat. I have taken the decision as a person firmly believing in the rule of law and principles of cooperatives." The court had disallowed coopted members to continue on the management committees of cooperatives.

The battle in the GCMMF, which Kurien has headed since 1974, is the latest in a series of controversies involving him and his leadership. Not many are willing to comment on why 11 out of 12 board members, who had elected Kurien recently as Chairman for another three years, suddenly went against him. "Bigger players are behind this. Political manoeuvrings is definitely responsible for Dr. Kurien's ouster," an informed source in the GCMMF told Frontline.

Although Kurien is not a political person, he has stayed clear of saffron parties. Therefore, most of Gujarat's milk unions are Congress-held. Apparently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been desperate to get into the cooperative sector, which has a huge vote bank, and has been working hard to get Kurien out so that it can convert or buy out some of the chairmen of societies, said the source. It is rumoured that there have been rumblings in the GCMMF board. That makes the chairmen good prey for the BJP.

In fact, Kurien states: "The board has only become a pawn in the bigger game plan of some vested interests bent upon capturing the cooperative body, which has withstood many such attempts in the past." He says he fears for the federation as these games shift the focus from the original mission of supporting the farmers' cooperatives.

The GCMMF board, however, says it is contesting Kurien's appointment as Chairman, which it believes is illegal. Kurien refutes this by saying that the bylaws, which permit him to be coopted as a dairy management expert, were approved by the then government before the GCMMF was founded.

Kurien's right hand P.A. Joseph believes a part of this problem originates from a very public fight between Amrita Patel, Chairman of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), and Kurien, which began about three years ago. Kurien was at loggerheads with Amrita Patel, who is his protege, about the NDDB corporatising the cooperative sector.

Essentially, he did not approve of her plan to enter into joint ventures with other State federations. Kurien told Frontline at that time: "Essentially it amounts to backdoor privatisation." Amrita Patel had justified the move by saying the State dairy cooperatives' marketing was in a complete mess and that they were trying to find a solution to help the sinking dairy federations compete with private players (Fronline, March 15, 2003).

"The NDDB has fuelled this whole mess. They are out to get Amul," says Joseph. The joint ventures, for instance, brought in Mother Dairy products into Mumbai and Gujarat, which are Amul strongholds. Although we are a strong brand our base will get eroded with such moves, he says.

Kurien's detractors have often said he cannot let go of Amul and he is unwilling to allow the next generation to run the show. A former GCMMF senior executive says Kurien should have left in a dignified way. He could have still contributed in the capacity of an expert. "But Amul is his life. His baby. It was impossible for him to walk away from something he made. The coup to remove him, however, is unfortunate, given the work he has done."

Although he has given up his post, Kurien has not resigned as life-long Chairman of the prestigious Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). Even over this, he ran into a controversy two years ago.

Kurien reportedly wanted to dismiss the then Director Professor K. Prathap Reddy as he had proved "incapable of running the show". They went to court. Kurien's post as life-long Chairman was also questioned. Kurien won. Prathap Reddy had to go.

Kurien says he is yet to take a decision about his position at the IRMA. However, it is not all over for him yet. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have expressed interest in getting him to replicate the Amul model in their countries. Essentially, he says, "if you do not want me, others do. I may be too old to travel but it may be an interesting option." Citing a Malayalam proverb, while taking questions about his future at the news conference, he said: muttathe mullakku manamilla (the jasmine in your own courtyard has no fragrance).

Hopefully, these controversies will not colour the fact that Kurien has done a great service to the nation. India, which was once a milk-deficient country, is today the world's largest milk producer, primarily owing to the White Revolution he led. Every State has a milk federation. Some 170 milk unions operating in 285 districts covering 96,000 village-level societies feed these federations. Over 10 million farmers across the country are members of these cooperatives and have benefited hugely from the production of milk.

The GCMMF is a Rs.3,600-crore federation. Amul itself is one of India's strongest brand names - this is not just in the dairy industry, but also as a brand. None of this can be forgotten easily.

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