V. Kurien: India's White Knight

Great men are not normal. If one is normal, one tends to act within the limits set by his surroundings. What makes the great men great is their ability to transcend obvious limitations

By Udit Misra
Published: Sep 10, 2012
Image: Getty Images

Bring me men to match my mountains, Bring me men to match my plains,
Men with empires in their purpose, And new eras in their brains.

-- Sam Walter Foss, from "The Coming American", July 4, 1894

Y K Alagh, former member of planning commission and a long time associate of Verghese Kurien, has an interesting anecdote to share if you ask him how Kurien was different form the several intellectuals India has produced.

“Once Kurien told me, ‘You are a friend and you are very good but you are much too general Yoginder – you don’t concentrate on one thing.’”

To which Alagh replied, “I know, you are a Spartan and I am an Athenian! I think.”

While both Spartans and Athenians belonged to Greece, Spartans were a militaristic race, which believed in expanding their area of control and preferred the rule of few (or even one) over many. Athenians, on the other hand, were a more democratic lot.

As a person, Kurien was a man in hurry. He had a vision and he was out to achieve it.  He laid a lot of stress on covering the last mile. As such, he was known to start in the reverse order when planning for a new venture like introducing a range of cheese.

He was very hands on with everything he did. In fact, once when a crane went out of control, Kurien flung himself and avoided any mishap. He did not care that in doing so he actually cut his thigh and bled profusely.

“That typified the man,” recalls Alagh.

The Kurien Doctrine 
Kurien’s main emphasis was on improving the marketing opportunities for the Indian farmer without which the farmers were dependent on middlemen, who cornered most of the profits and stunted the growth of rural India.

Therefore, he not only worked hard in creating the best marketing platform for farmers himself, he also founded the Institute of Rural Management at Anand (IRMA) in 1979 to create a cadre of professional managers imbued with his understanding of the rural India.

Many young professionals like Sanjiv Phansalkar, Program Leader at the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, started his career from IRMA just to be associated with Kurien.

“The simplicity and power in his argument that unless you put the means of production in the hands of the producer you cannot change their fate was simply great,” says Phansalkar who joined IRMA in 1982.

Ironically, it is this very thought that was questioned towards the fag end of Kurien’s career when there was a push to delinking production and marketing functions of the co-operatives.

His protégé, Amrita Patel, who succeeded him as the Chairman of NDDB in 1998 was spearheading the move to turn co-operative to producer companies and hiving off marketing side of business into separate entities.

Kurien bitterly opposed the move as he feared the private players like Nestle and Britannia will eventually take over the marketing yet again.  In a sense, he felt his life’s work was being destroyed.

But the relative weakness of the cooperative movement in other parts of the country as well as the newer trends of business management only underline the fact that the success of Kurien’s model in Gujarat was both a product of his own leadership as well as the existing economic climate in the country.

Another episode when he found himself swimming against the tide was in the late 1990s when there was a growing demand to amend the Milk and Milk Products Order (or MMPO), which regulated the milk processing business in the country. As the head of NDDB, Kurien had restricted the milk processing business to the existing co-operatives. The Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), which he headed, and its brand Amul benefitted hugely from such a restriction. But it was an untenable stand in an increasingly liberalized economy were many private players who wanted to enter the business.

Ultimately, after prolonged deliberations the NDA government diluted the MMPO in 2000. Experts who were close to the deliberations believe it helped increasing the productivity by 5% to 10%.  

A Reluctant Start
In her book, “The Amul India Story,” Ruth Heredia states that Verghese Kurien was actually quite an “unlikely recruit” in the field of dairying.

It was 1945 and the Second World War had just ended. The government in India approved 500 new scholarships in UK and US for young Indian professionals who would be required in the post war reconstruction.

24 years old Verghese Kurien, a mechanical engineer from Madras University had barely completed a year of apprenticeship with the Jamshedpur based TISCO (Tata Iron and Steel Company). But he wasn’t enjoying his time there.
As he sat before the interview board, he was hoping to get an opportunity to study metallurgy.
“What is pasteurization?”
A surprised Kurien gave a half-baked reply, “A process of boiling milk at a certain temperature.”
“Thank you,” said the interviewer. “You have been selected for ‘Dairy Engineering’”
Reluctantly, Kurien said yes since it was the only scholarship left available by then and went on to complete his Masters from Michigan State University.

However, no one could have imagined how this odd event would shape the future of millions of farmers in Independent India.

Upon his return to India, Kurien was sent to a remote district of Gujarat to help a milk co-operative under instructions of Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister.

The little known town, Anand in the Kaira district, did not hold a lot of promise for the young and impatient Kurien. But at the last moment, he was persuaded to stay back by the founder of Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers Union Ltd., Tribhuvandas Patel, a tall leader in his own right. After this there was no turning back for Kurien.

He dedicated himself to the task of strengthening the co-operative and relieving the milk farmers from the clutches of intermediaries. It was not an easy task. India had just gained independence and there was a natural suspicion surrounding anything that resembled the colonial rule. Moreover, there were deep-set caste divisions and gender biases that Kurien and his team had to deal with. Not to mention the resentment among the existing middlemen who tried everything in their power to derail the nascent efforts.

“It was nothing short of a miracle,” says Shreyans Shah, editor and publisher of Gujarat Samachar  

By 1955, Kurien led to the development of the iconic Amul brand for selling the milk of the co-operative.  In 1965, Kurien’s leadership caught the attention of the Prime Minister Lal Bhadur Shashtri, who was great sympathizer of the farmers.  He asked Kurien to lead the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and replicate the Co-operative success story of Amul across the country. In 1970, with the help of the World Bank, the NDDB started “Operation Flood” which, over the next 26 years, transformed India from a milk importer to world’s top most milk producing country.

Kurien came to be known as the “Milkman of India” and the “Father of White Revolution” apart from being awarded the Magsaysay Prize (1963), Padam Shri (1965), Padma Bhushan (1966), Wateler Peace Prize (1986) and the World Food Prize (1989).

Today close to 14 million farmers are organized in over 133000 village co-operatives and produce over 25 million litres of milk everyday. Milk production in India has risen from just under 21 million tonnes annually in 1970 to 117 million tonnes in 2010. In comparison China’s production could only rise from 2 mn tonnes  to 41 mn tonnes over the same period.

Veteran filmmaker, Shyam Benegal, regards Kurien, along with M S Swaminathan (father of India’s Green Revolution), as the two greatest heroes of independent India. Benegal directed the Oscar nominated movie on the rise of milk co-operative movement from Gujarat.

 “His work was charged with idealism and he completely changed the economics of milk production in the country,” says Benegal.

The Essential Kurien
“Listen young man, you don’t even know how to milk a cow and you are lecturing me,” roared Verghese Kurien while rebutting a senior bureaucrat in the Planning Commission, who incidentally went on to become India’s finance secretary later.

This was the late 1970s and Kurien, Chairman of the hugely successful Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) brand Amul, wanted to launch a new range of sweets. Bureaucrats at the commission were apprehensive how such a move may affect the small time confectioners across the country.

Alagh, who was also present in the room, says Kurien won the argument easily. Kurien would often bulldoze his ideas in the government with this forceful - almost domineering - manner.

They say great men are not normal. If one is normal, one tends to act within the limits set by his surroundings. What makes the great men great is their ability to transcend obvious limitations. Their vision and supreme self-belief drives them constantly until they achieve what they wanted to.

Kurien was one such man.  Otherwise, he would not have – almost singlehandedly – cranked up the co-operative sector in India and that too in milk production. It was unimaginable in the middle of the twentieth century that small farmers and cooperatives could take up dairying. Western experts saw dairying as the exclusive preserve of big dairy companies conducted over expansive ranches.

In a career that spanned close to six decades, Kurien not only changed the lives of millions of farmers and consumers but also established some of India’s best institutions and brands like the Institute of Rural Management at Anand.

However, Kurien’s larger than life image received a sobering blow with the opening up of the economy in the late 1990s. By the time he ended his tenure at the helm of affairs in 2006, even his own students and confidants started questioning strict adherence to his co-operative model.

A Sobering End
Most people who have worked with him remember him as a very headstrong, opinionated colleague who had a biting sense of humour and used to often take it out on bureaucrats and the so-called intellectuals.

He was equally strict with his disciples who held him in great awe. Phansalkar says Kurien believed if something is worth doing then its worth doing well but he was also quite supportive of his students and often his dreaded sense of humour took a more benevolent tone before his students.

“Once I placed a 10 page report on his desk but by some chance page 6 was missing. He called me asked why was I hiding page 6 from him!” says Phansalkar.

But his forthright nature could often be too hot to handle for many. According to an apocryphal story, the ambassador of New Zealand was criticizing India’s protectionist policies while Kurien was also on the dias. At the end of her speech, Kurien turned to her and said, “Madam if each India spits in New Zealand’s direction, your country would drown!”

Often he was accused of being obstinate like the time when he refused the government to station himself and the NDDB in New Delhi.  His rationale was that the institution should be close to the people and that’s how he stayed put in Anand.

Benegal recalls that Kurien was a very different person when it came to the farmers. “He saw himself as their servant and never tried to have his way at their cost.”   
In fact, he was quite like a child full of a deep sense of wonder when not dealing with bureaucrats!

During a high profile visit by Russian dignitaries including Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin (the First Secretary and Premier respectively)to Anand , Kurien was thrilled to use the satellite phone which Kosygin carried. He promptly called a friend in Brazil when Kosygin offered him the phone.

“He was very receptive of new technology,” said Benegal.

When the 90 year old Verghese Kurien died on Sunday in Nadiad, the very same place where he completed his life’s work, India lost more than just one of its most patriotic and courageous sons.

“He was an icon. His death marks the end of an era,” says Alagh

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  • Paddu Kapadia

    Few people have both vision and courage to force a dream on people and government V. Kurien was one such man

    on Sep 12, 2012
  • Vinoopn

    Sir, You have done so much for the country and its people. We bow before you. Please take a rebirth to make India number one in another field

    on Sep 11, 2012
    • Ashok

      I beg your Pardon in advance but I want to say why not you try to make India number one in another field. Maybe you are a normal person now but what if you can get the courage to change it.

      on Sep 18, 2012
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