Verghese Kurien (26 November 1921 – 9 September 2012), known as the 'Father of the White Revolution' in India, was a social entrepreneur whose "billion-litre idea", Operation Flood – the world's largest agricultural dairy development programme, made dairy farming India's largest self-sustaining industry and the largest rural employment provider, being a third of all rural income, with benefits of raising incomes and credit, riddance of debt dependence, nutrition, education, health, gender parity and empowerment, breakdown of caste barriers and grassroots democracy and leadership. It made India the world's largest milk producer from a milk-deficient nation, which doubled milk available per person and increased milk output four-fold, in 30 years.
He pioneered the "Anand pattern" of dairy cooperatives to replicate it nationwide, based on Amul, his standalone cooperative then, and today India's largest food brand, where 70–80% of the price paid by consumers went as cash to dairy farmers who controlled the marketing, the procurement and the processing of milk and milk products as the cooperative's owners, while hiring professionals for their skills and inducting technology, in managing it. Rather than focusing directly on removing caste and class conflicts which get entrenched as vested interests, instead, he worked singularly on the belief that economic self-interest of all sections of the village-society would make them align together to grow their cooperative. A key invention at Amul, the world's first, was the production of milk powder from the abundant buffalo-milk, instead of from the conventional cow-milk, short in supply in India. He thus got dairy farmers organised in the villages and linked them directly to consumers in the market by eliminating middlemen, ensuring them a steady and a regular income even during the lean season, and a better quality produce at a competitive price, to the consumer in the large market of the reachable Bombay city, on a steady supply over well-paved village "milk roads" and a 'cold-chain'. He surmounted skepticism and adversity with his indefatigable fighting spirit and outmaneuvering skills. This helped him capture a commanding share of the market there which got him wide attention.
When he succeeded in this venture, he had the foresight to shrewdly use the clout resulting from its recognition, by employing his networking skills and resources at his command effectively, in negotiating international help and support from the governments of at least 9 prime ministers of the country, all on terms set by him, over more than 5 decades. Termed "a crocodile who swims in milk", he would steadfastly stave off, encroachment by multinational companies on markets nurtured by him, and interference by politicians and bureaucrats while building his cooperatives to national scale and founding institutions.
He also made India self-sufficient in edible oils, taking on a powerful, entrenched and violently resistant oil supplying cartel. He is regarded as one of the greatest proponents of the cooperative movement in the world, which emphasises production by the masses over mass-production, with his work having lifted millions out of poverty in India and outside.
He was born on 26 November 1921 at Calicut, Madras Presidency (now Kozhikode, Kerala) in a Syrian Christian family. He schooled at Diamond Jubilee Higher Secondary School, Gobichettipalayam, in Coimbatore district (now in Erode district, Tamil Nadu) while his father worked as a civil surgeon at the government hospital there. He joined Loyola College, Madras (now, Chennai) at the age of 14, graduating in science with physics in 1940, and then got a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy, Madras, in 1943 He had to fend for himself as he was young for his age in every class. This according to him, developed his sense of independence. He lost his father at 22 and his grand-uncle moved his family to his home in Trichur (now Thrissur). A keen military cadet and a boxer at college, when he wanted to join the army as an engineer, his mother persuaded him to join the Tata Steel Technical Institute, Jamshedpur on a recommendation to the management by his uncle, who was a director with the Tatas, and from where he graduated in 1946, but soon found himself wanting to get away from the hangers-on and yesmen of his uncle.
So he left and applied for a government of India scholarship, and was chosen to study dairy engineering, an irrelevant discipline, much to his surprise and reluctance, but this time his uncle (by now, the finance minister) refused to bail him out. He was thus, sent to the Imperial Institute of Animal Husbandry in Bangalore (now, National Dairy Research Institute, southern station, Bengaluru) where he spent nine months, and merely bid time out to be sent to America. Here too, by choosing some dairying electives, rather perfunctorily, at Michigan State University, he returned with a master's degree in mechanical engineering (metallurgy) (with a minor in nuclear physics), instead, in 1948. While there, when he found himself at the receiving end of racist jibes, the Indian in him saw him, in his words, "put the natives back in their place".
Later, he would say, "I was sent to ... study dairy engineering (on the only government scholarship left) ... I cheated a bit though, and studied metallurgical and nuclear engineering, disciplines ... likely to be of far greater use to my soon-to-be independent country and, quite frankly, to me."
He did train in dairy technology, with a sense of purpose eventually, in 1952-53, on a government sponsorship to New Zealand, a bastion of cooperative dairying then, and to Australia, when he had to learn to set up the Amul dairy.
In 1949, Kurien was sent by the government of India to its run-down, experimental creamery at Anand, in Bombay province (later Bombay state & now part of Gujarat state since 1960), and began to work rather half-heartedly, to serve out his bond-period against the scholarship given by them for his master's degree. He began to while away his time going off to Bombay city on weekends and on some pretext of work or else, volunteering to tinker with the primitive dairy equipment of Tribhuvandas Patel, who sought his help to process the milk of farmers he had brought together after a strike in 1946, forming a cooperative society to purchase their milk, at Kaira (now, Kheda) nearby.
He had already made up his mind to quit the government job mid-way and leave Anand but, was persuaded by Tribhuvandas to stay back with him after quitting them, and help him set up his dairy. Tribhuvandas's efforts and the trust placed in him by farmers inspired Kurien to dedicate himself to establishing that dairy cooperative, 'Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers' Union Limited (KDCMPUL)' (which came to be known popularly as Amul dairy), at Anand.
The farmers faced a problem of fluctuating milk production as surplus milk would find no takers in the flush season, and turned to the cooperative for help, where an idea took root to try convert this surplus to milk powder. Kurien's batchmate from America and dairy engineer H. M. Dalaya, who he persuaded to stay back at Anand after a mere visit, invented the process of making skim milk powder and condensed milk from buffalo milk, instead of from cow milk, said impossible by dairy experts around the world. In India, buffalo milk was plentiful while, cow milk was in short supply, unlike Europe where it was abundant. This was the reason Amul would compete successfully and well against Nestle, the leading competitor, which used cow milk to make them, and later against Glaxo for baby food. Later research by Dr. G. H. Wilster led to cheese production from buffalo milk at Amul. To cut costs, Kurien got a captive packaging-tin unit attached to the dairy in a collaboration. Amul then took on established competitors, viz. government-run Aarey dairy's Bombay Milk Scheme and private-run Polson dairy, in the Bombay market, and gained a share with these products along with its famed butter.
He and his mentor Tribhuvandas were backed by quite a few political leaders and bureaucrats of the time who saw merit in their pioneering cooperative model, of farmers willing to associate together for their produce and willing to be led by professionals even whilst being owners of the cooperative. The nation had just gained political freedom from a colonial power who the leaders had seen extorting land tax unjustly from farmers in the face of crop failure. There had been many famines over the duration of that regime, so leaders were concerned over food security of the population. Being a newly independent nation, there was a desire to gain self-sufficiency in its consumed produce and therefore the thrust to indigenous production to substitute imports. Moreover, these nationalist leaders were influenced by socialist ideals of formation of social capital more than the formation of capital assets, and the Gandhian philosophy of production by masses triumphing mass-production in a resource-constrained nation. At the same time, the new government's policies were open to the skills and learnings of modern experts, research & high-technology and aid from worldwide.
That the initial lot of farmers all belonged to the single clan of Tribhuvandas's predominant caste-grouping also helped in bringing all of them together quickly, as a single cooperative union before farmers from other castes took interest and joined in.
Amul's cooperative dairying venture succeeded and word spread around. Dignitaries, researchers & trainees, and common folk alike, would visit Anand to know more about it. Earlier, then prime minister Nehru, had already visited Anand to inaugurate Amul's plant, the largest in Asia, and embraced Kurien for his groundbreaking work.
In 1956, Kurien visited Nestle in their home country, on the commerce and industries minister's concern to ask them to bring down imported inputs of their Indian production and have more Indians inducted, but they told him that making condensed milk "could not be left to the natives". He stormed out of that meeting after giving them an earful, came back and ramped up Amul's production & market of condensed milk, and after two years got the government to ban the import of condensed milk into the country. Amul faced serious competition from imported butter, especially from New Zealand. The then finance minister came to trust Kurien so much, that whenever Kurien would ask him to cut imports of butter it would be done every time, in tandem with a mere promise of an incremental increase of his production to make good any shortage. And every single time he kept his word and the markets never faced any shortage of butter. During the 1962 Indo-China war, the government depended on Kurien to step up supplies to the army. He had to divert these away from his civilian market. When Polson sensed an undue advantage in this and started grabbing his market share, Kurien was blunt to him and made sure the government froze Polson's production lines, as part of the war effort.
In 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri tasked Kurien to replicate the dairy's 'Anand pattern' nationwide for which, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) was founded under Kurien on his conditions, that it be independent of governmental control and that it be set up at Anand, away from the capitals and closer to farmers. Kurien was mindful of meddling by the political class and bureaucrats sitting in the capital cities, letting it be known upfront.
He was bold in dealing with donors like the UNICEF for aid, and confronted the New Zealand government and a powerful lobby in countries which, he realised with some foresight, wanted to "convert aid into trade" for their companies, at a cross-purpose to his wanting India to convert aid to become self-made. As what the donors would eventually come to want, would have harmed his fledgling dairies, instead, he used the proceeds from the sale of that "mountains and lakes" of dumped aid in the Indian markets as his "billion-litre idea" to stem the movement of high-yield cattle of native breeds to urban areas, which subsequently, would face needless slaughter, reverse this flow by setting up milksheds & dairies all over the nation and stabilise the markets of big cities for their ensuing produce. International experts who visited Anand, were so fascinated by Kurien's work that, they would stay back for extended periods of time wanting to work alongside him. In return, Kurien would engage them for their expertise on salaries arranged from the aid money.
The Anand dairy was replicated in Gujarat's districts around it and he set all of them under Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. (GCMMF) in 1973 to sell their combined produce under a single Amul brand. Many states would emulate setting up their federations based on this pattern with varying degrees of success, notably, with Karnataka's brand Nandini, Rajasthan's brand Saras and Bihar's brand Sudha, not just dominating their respective state markets but intervening in neighbouring states, today.
Shastri also took Kurien's help to set right the government's mismanaged Delhi Milk Scheme, where he moved in swiftly to break a contractor's cartel and set prices right in the face of the pampered section of consumers from the powerful class of the capital city, before they could lobby against the move.
In 1979, he founded the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) to groom managers for the cooperatives.
He prevailed on prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi on setting up cooperatives & plants, and manage the intervention in fruits & vegetables and oilseeds & edible oils markets during their tenures, respectively, like he had done for milk during Operation Flood. Brands resulting from these - Dhara (Operation Golden Flow for cooking oils), Mother Dairy (Operation Flood) and Safal (for vegetables) are household names today.
He played a key role in setting up similar cooperatives across India and outside. In 1979, Premier Alexei Kosygin invited Kurien to the Soviet Union for advice on the cooperatives there. In 1982, Pakistan invited him to set up dairy cooperatives, where he went leading a World Bank mission. Around 1989, China implemented its own Operation-Flood like programme with the help of Kurien and the World Food Programme. Then prime minister Narasimha Rao sought his help to set up the dairy cooperative of neighbouring Sri Lanka which was done by NDDB, later in 1997, in a collaboration with them.
In the 1990s he lobbied and fought hard to keep multinational companies from entering the dairy business even as the country opened up all its other markets to them following globalisation, after decades of protection. India became the world's largest milk producer by 1998, surpassing the United States of America, with about 17 percent of global output in 2010–11.
In 1998, he prevailed upon then prime minister Vajpayee to appoint Dr. Amrita Patel his successor at NDDB, who he had groomed under him consciously to keep government bureaucrats away from the post, to protect NDDB's independence from the government. Later, he had differences with her on the direction she was taking cooperative dairying by merely focusing on production and yield targets through corporatisation and competition, at the expense of weakening the cooperative institutions of the country, for instance, marketing no longer remaining with the farmers' cooperatives, getting handed over to private or corporate interests, as that would mean foregoing the ability to determine the price to be paid by consumers, the quality of the produce to be offered to them, and also losing the 'lion's share' of the money paid by the consumer to these corporates, with their cooperatives merely carrying out procurement and processing functions and that too at the diktats of those who would now control marketing.
He quit as GCMMF chairman in 2006 following dwindling support from new members on the governing board and mounting dissent from his proteges, some calling his way of working, rather late in the day, dictatorial, backed by political forces desperate to make inroads into the cooperative dairy's district unions.
The Amul federation, GCMMF, continues ridden with factionalism and court disputes over its control yet, time seems to have proven Kurien's making of cooperative dairying a formidable marketing entity and his opposition to its privatisation and globalisation correct, with hardly any private corporate or multinational brand making any profit in the markets, right since dairy businesses were opened up for them, even as Amul and other state federations' cooperative brands, surge way ahead profitably as market leaders in India, with Amul busy exporting to many other countries, right since he departed from it.
Film-maker Shyam Benegal wanted to make Manthan (in Hindu mythology, the churning of the 'milk ocean'), a story based on Amul, but lacked funds. Kurien got his half a million member-farmers to contribute a token two rupees each for the making of the movie. It struck a chord with the audience when it was released in Gujarat in 1976. Truckloads of farmers came to see "their film", making it a success at the box office, emboldening distributors to release it before audiences nationwide. It was critically acclaimed and went on to win national awards the following year, was later shown on national television and was sent for Oscar. An anti-climax starts building up towards the last fifteen minutes of the movie where, once external agents have come to a village, overcome vested interests, brought villagers together to set up a dairy cooperative and then withdrawn, only to have the village go back to its old ways, the defining moment of the film comes in the last couple of minutes, which captures the essence of Kurien's work, and realisation takes hold among a skeptical gathering when an unwearied villager (played by Naseeruddin Shah) tells them, "Arre, kyun nahi chalegi! Hum sab milke chalayenge isko. Kya un logon ki hai yeh! Sisoti aapdi chhe, aapdi banaayi!" (And how shall it run! Heck, we will run it. All of us together. No need anyone else! The cooperative society belongs to us, made by us!)
The movie's success led Kurien to another idea. A vet, a milk technician and a fodder specialist, who could explain the value of cross-breeding of milch cattle, as was shown in the film, would tour other parts of the country in real life along with the film's prints, to woo farmers to form cooperatives of their own. UNDP would use the movie to start similar cooperatives in Latin America. and show it in Africa.
Kurien's support was crucial in making, the 'Amul girl' ad campaign (advertising with a larger public message), one of the longest running for decades now, and 'Surabhi', a TV series on Indian culture, which used to fetch millions of postcards from viewers, weekly, one of the longest running on national television.
Kurien died after a brief spell of illness aged 90 on 9 September 2012 at a Nadiad hospital, near Anand, followed by his wife a few months later in Mumbai. She hosted the endless stream of visitors to Anand. She would say that he worked hard but never brought work back home and was in bed by 9 pm, only to wake up in the dead of night to catch the earliest morning flight after some road travel. Brought up a Christian, Kurien later became an atheist, and was cremated. A daughter and a grandson survive them. He would network with relatives accomplished in their field and often got sound advice and assistance on his work, be it by his cousin, Ravi J. Matthai, the first director of IIM at Ahmedabad nearby, on setting up an entire institute (IRMA) rather than sponsor students at IIM as the cooperative's recruits, or the importance of branding & advertising his products from his wife's brother-in-law. In his later years, on being asked by his daughter to retire and come stay with her at her home in another city, he replied that Anand was his home and he will remain there and never quit working. Even as his most expensive personal possession was a mere watch gifted him by his grandson, he would take pride in the farmers' money providing the air-conditioned house and luxury-model car at his disposal, and spared no expense with it for constructing a modern IRMA campus and facilities for its residents, saying, "These students are my princes, and if you want to make them kings (who will go out to conquer), you cannot have them stay in a pigsty".
Kurien, who spent most of his life in Gujarat and gained the affection and the respect of its people, was unable to get any landlord to rent him a room when he first arrived in Anand, as besides being unable to speak the language of the place, he was "a bachelor, a non-vegetarian and a Christian"! He never spoke the language of the state despite understanding it later on, nor was he used to drinking milk.
|Year||Name of Award or Honor||Awarding Organization|
|1999||Padma Vibhushan||Government of India|
|1997||Order of Agricultural Merit||Ministère de l'Agriculture (Ministry of Agriculture), France)|
|1993||International Person of the Year||World Dairy Expo|
|1989||World Food Prize||World Food Prize Foundation|
|1986||Wateler Peace Prize||Carnegie Foundation (Netherlands)|
|1986||Krishi Ratna||Government of India|
|1966||Padma Bhushan||Government of India|
|1965||Padma Shri||Government of India|
|1963||Ramon Magsaysay Award||Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation|
Kurien either headed or was on the boards of several public institutions and also received honorary doctorate degrees from universities in India and around the world. Lectures by eminent speakers are held in his memory, to apply "lessons from the dairy sector" through his work, to ongoing rural issues such as 'an Amul model for pulses' or using management strategies for rural India's social organisation or using his work in organising funds to promote 'growth with justice'
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