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An utterly remarkable life

RASHEEDA BHAGAT
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A witty conversationalist and great institution-builder, Verghese Kurien revolutionised the procurement and marketing of milk and ensured that dairy producers got their due.

I’ve interviewed India’s delightful doodhwala, Verghese Kurien twice for Business Line. The first time he received me cheerfully and said: “I have all the time in the world; you see I’ve just lost my job”. In the next breath, he added: “Every time I open my mouth, I land in trouble, but that’s okay!”

It was in the first week of December 1998, barely a few days after he had won the long-drawn, acrimonious battle with the Government of India over the choice of his successor at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) where he had been Chairman for 33 long years. A man with strong views and even stronger likes and dislikes, Kurien neither minced words nor believed in holding back his punches.

The first obvious question was about the battle to pass on the NDDB chairmanship to Amrita Patel, his protégé. So what was his strategy, I asked.

With a guffaw Kurien replied, “If the Government of India had, in its wisdom, chosen an IAS officer to succeed me, do you think he would have been allowed to step into the campus (Amul headquarters at Anand, Gujarat)?

The Patels said we have a Patel (Amrita, the daughter of former Finance Minister H. M. Patel) and we want Patel raj. The chairman of Amul came to me and said: ‘Sala kaun hei woh IAS officer? Hum log usko dekh lege! (Who the hell is that IAS officer; we will take care of him.)’ I told them all this is not required, that would be the last resort.”

Storyteller par excellence

I don’t recall laughing as much in any interview as that one. Kurien looked triumphant and like the cat that had swallowed the canary. Also, clearly, I was seated before one of the best storytellers ever, and one who was funny, witty, sarcastic, sardonic and extremely generous as well when it came to his successor. After all, he had brought her into the organisation…

So what was her best qualification for the job, I asked. Frowning and with mock-hurt he replied: “The best qualification Madam, is to be groomed by Dr Kurien.”

Well, modesty was the last of his virtues, I thought, tuning into details of how Amrita had entered the organisation and groomed by him for 25 years. Her father, H. M. Patel, a good friend of Kurien’s for 50 years, asked him if he could find a placement for his veterinarian daughter.

She was first made an assistant to the female FAO expert who had came to Anand to take charge of the cattle-feed plant. Finding Amrita to be “extremely bright”, she sent her overseas on an FAO fellowship. “On her return, I found her to be a better manager than veterinarian, so I chose her as my successor”, he said, deadpan.

Reacting to my helpless expression, he added seriously that this was a position nobody had wanted 33 years ago, but today it had tons of money, “and money attracts thieves. She has absolute integrity, is much more firm than me in her decision making and she’ll make a better manager.”

The successor’s style

During the same visit to Anand, and an hour later, I interviewed Amrita Patel; she agreed that the NDDB was “vulnerable because of the money we have”, but refused to answer the question on whether the scramble for its chairmanship was because of the huge funds, saying, “That’s an unfair question.”

The institution was sitting on Rs 300 crore (in 1998, mind you!), I persisted, adding, “This is the figure Dr Kurien gave me.”

A smile and Amrita responded, “Did he? We won’t contradict that. Dr Kurien is very generous with his figures!”

She did admit that she had very large boots to fill. But her managerial style was very different from Kurien’s and, perhaps, that was the reason the two of them started sparring after a while, sometimes very publicly.

One such example was at the IRMA (Indian Rural Management Institute that Kurien founded) board meeting in April 2005, when the guru-sishya standoff came to public domain. The IRMA convocation was held after the board meet and she stormed out of the meet after the two had traded charges and allegations.

Later, his nomination to the National Cooperative Dairy Federation of India (NCDFI), which Kurien had chaired, was rejected, and this was stated to be at the behest of the supporters of Amrita Patel.

Shadow over Kurien’s later years

Kurien is fondly remembered for the White Revolution he brought to India, for getting the Indian farmer, and in this case, women who did the back-breaking job of feeding the cows/buffaloes and carrying the milk to the co-operative. In that interview, Kurien had said that milk was the only commodity that needed to be sold twice a day and within a few hours of production.

“The farmer has no bargaining power; he has to sell milk at whatever price is given. That is why the cooperative model… the farmer getting command over the procurement, processing and marketing of his produce, is the only solution. The dairy should belong to him. That is why Sardar Patel said: ‘Polson ne kaadhi muko’ (Throw out Polson),’” he smiled.

But, unfortunately, the best of top honchos/managers overstay their welcome in institutions they have founded, nurtured and given wings to fly. Kurien’s was one such case. He was already 76 when he stepped down from the NDDB in 1998 and chose Amrita as his successor.

Whether it was heading IRMA or other organisations such as the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, of which Kurien was Chairman, and from which he had to resign on grounds of “no confidence” in 2006, his being thrown out was heartbreaking. In the last case, the anguished exclaimed: “Do I deserve this kind of treatment?”

But what nobody can take away from him is what he did to the Indian farmer. In his darkest hours and when he was under attack, he always got his “strength and support from the Indian farmer. It has been my good fortune to work with, and for, the Indian farmer. I know that the men and women I work for don’t lack the courage or the will to succeed against all odds.”

Revolutionising the way milk is procured and marketed in India, getting those who produce this precious commodity their due, and succeeding against all odds is what Kurien did. And for this the nation is indebted to him. Hugely.

Response to rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu.co.in and blfeedback@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on September 10, 2012)
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Comments:

A well crafted article.

It is a pity that Dr Kurien’s name is not even discussed for Bharat
Ratna . He ensured that all Indians will get a cup of milk to drink..
I was following the Board room tussles in the later part of his life.
In my opinion he should have retired gracefully… Old age cynicism
got the better of him ..
I do remember him mentioning in a interview to a national news
channel 2 yrs ago that Amul HQ in Anand wanted him to take a pass for
entry ……After his exit … What a Shame.
Chandrasekhar N

from:  Chandrasekhar N
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 15:42 IST



Thank you for bringing such a huge deserving impressive attributes of
the man in your article in Busines Line which I was reading today who
indeed ushered in the white revolution in India. Today ‘Amul’ is a
household name in India which means quality – there is not a day I am
sure in most households where we do not have the diary products of
Amul and it is rightly said ‘Amul’ means quality.



I really wish we had at least another few Kuriens in our country to
light up the lives of our rural sides, to bring in more such
revolution which our country is badly in need of and much so to
revolutionise the agriculture industry and farmers!



I salute the departed captain but he remains with us all today and
will remain tomorrow as the face of Amul, in the form of Amul!



Jai Hind!


from:  Ragini shah
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 15:46 IST

The author would have done well to avoid the controversy over Amrita Patel. Tradition demands that a departed soul is viewed positively. What good are non-issues ?

from:  Saurabh Sharma
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 17:03 IST

It is destiny that protege denied the master as Pathrose denied though foretold by his
master.When son/daughter becomes equal to parents,he/she expresses opinion of his/her
own.At one stage of relation,there is separation in conceptualization,decision making
process and obviously expression.After all NDDB is a public organization and no one is
indispensable.It is better to assume advisory role rather than in full time management.The
rare quality of late Dr Varghese Kurian is developing a next line of leadership and after all
no one will deny that Dr Amrita Patel was groomed,trained and guided by Dr Kurian.Now it
is only academic and growth of NDDB restricted to Gujarat and Karnataka to be
researched.Our country needs many Kurians and Amrita Patels to manage the milk sector
in their own ways.

from:  Dr K V Peter
Posted on: Sep 11, 2012 at 20:53 IST

You have done a marvelous job on Amul Kurien, and also exposed human
mindset by narrating the unfortunate relationship with Amrita Patel who was groomed by none other than Kurien. It is an irony but usually happens in the material world where there is no room for gratitude or such niceties. He lived and worked at a time when value system was entirely different compared to that of present. His style of functioning would have been a misfit in the present social mindset. He was the real champion of the farmers and village community and strenuously worked for their empowerment and development. A mechanical engineer by education it is a wonder how he could imbibe such a humane spirit and concern for the downtrodden masses. He also showed a clear cut way for the overall development of an agrarian
society like ours. Farmers produce perishable articles with short shelf-life and need help and guidance on collection and marketing networks.He designed such systems and implemented them. I am a big admirer of his. Dr MC Geoerge ADVOCATE,INFAM(IndianFarmersMovement)National Trustee

from:  Dr M.C.George
Posted on: Sep 12, 2012 at 15:50 IST

I was fortunate to have associated with Dr V Kurien for over two
decades (at NDDB, GCMMF, IRMA, etc) as his Private Secretary and later
as his Executive Assistant. I could be with him even during his last days at the Muljibhai Patel Urological Hospital, Nadiad where I am now employed (www.mpuh.org). Therefore, I had seen a giant at work, with single minded aim - to empower the small and marginal cooperative dairy farmers of India who otherwise are not counted except when elections come! He was an upright man, immensely intelligent, incorruptible, full of confidence in himself and the common people of India. He wanted India to grow with a humane face, flying the flags of all downtrodden nations of the world along her own, unlike the present super power(s) of the world.

from:  P A Joseph
Posted on: Sep 15, 2012 at 10:09 IST
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