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.