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Remembering Verghese Kurien – India’s first milkman

Sharad Gupta | Updated on November 26, 2019 Published on November 26, 2019

Verghese Kurien, the man behind Brand Amul   -  BL

More than 60 years ago, Verghese Kurien wrote a prospectus for dairying in India. At the time, large amounts of scarce foreign exchange were being spent to import dairy products from New Zealand and Europe.

He had been working with the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union, building an organisation with people of exceptional talent. He was well into his partnership with Tribhuvandas Patel, the cooperative’s first Chairman and a man of great integrity, wisdom and faith in rural people.

The prospectus can be found in Kurien’s autobiographical book, An Unfinished Dream. It was a blueprint for the development of dairying in India, an effort that Kurien always said was not about dairying, but about people.

In that book, Kurien outlined a vision. That vision was that dairying could help transform the lives of India’s rural people.

Cooperative model

Central to Kurien’s vision was cooperation. He saw a cooperative structure as the way to help rural people to benefit from their labour. When the Kaira Union was formed in 1946, the milk business was dominated by traders. They exploited milk producers mercilessly. When there was a glut, they refused to buy. When milk was scarce, they cheated farmers by claiming the milk was of low quality.

Working with Tribhuvandas Patel, Kurien proved in Kaira district that farmers could come together to build a business that they owned and benefited them.

The Kaira Union had already become strong, challenging the then-dominant Polsons for a pride of place in the dairy industry.

As those familiar with the history of Indian dairying know, Amul became the inspiration and model for the transformation of India’s dairying, a transformation that has resulted in India becoming the world’s leading milk producer.

Rural empowerment

The reasons Kurien saw cooperatives as the critical element in building dairying in India were grounded in his belief that the purpose of dairying was to empower India’s rural people.

He believed that India should become a land which was just and equitable.

The cooperative is a democratic organisation. Each member, regardless of how rich or poor they may be, has a single vote in the affairs of their cooperative. Membership is open to all who are willing to accept the responsibilities of membership. No privilege is accorded to capital – rather returns are divided on the basis of patronage, how much milk the member pours.

It is instructive to look back at the three decades that followed Independence – the period when Kaira’s success led to replication of the Anand Pattern throughout India.

On October 31, 1964, the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri visited Anand to inaugurate Amul’s cattlefeed factory. He spent a night in a village and talked to farmers about their cooperative. On returning to Delhi, he set in motion the creation of an organisation, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), to replicate the Kaira cooperative in other parts of India.

Drawing on the officers of the Kaira Union at first, and then recruiting young people with veterinary, engineering and other skills, Kurien created an organisation of excellence, an organisation he inspired with his vision, his commitment and his integrity. Spearhead teams of highly motivated young men worked in 18 districts, sitting with dairy farmers to understand their problems and helping them form dairy cooperatives.

Political interference

A great deal of time has passed since the 1950s and from the early days of Operation Flood. Tribhuvandas Patel, Kurien, and many of those pioneering leaders of yesteryears are no longer with us.

In his last decade, Kurien expressed disappointment with the growing control of cooperatives by politicians and bureaucrats.

Kurien was vocal in expressing his frustration and tried to find a way to create a cooperative company law, similar to New Zealand’s.

There is no gainsaying the achievements of the dairy cooperative movement. There are more than 150,000 dairy cooperatives in India today. There are 16 million member families. Milk payments have become a major source of income for millions of rural families. The Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, popularly known as Amul, today stands as India’s largest food business.

Untapped potential

But we should measure what has been achieved in relation to the potential, and there the cooperative movement has fallen woefully short. Much of the success is limited to a handful of States and districts. We see cooperatives are now being politicised. The self-interest and greed of a few have sown the seeds of future failure.

As we celebrate Kurien and his achievements, let us remember that his vision was to empower the rural people, to free them from exploitation and to help build a grassroots foundation for our democratic nation.

Sharad Gupta is Editor & Publisher, Dairy India Yearbook, New Delhi, and Co-Founder, www.IndiaDairy.com

Published on November 26, 2019
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