Life and times of Verghese Kurien

R.P. Aneja | Updated on September 11, 2012

Verghese Kurien

He stood up for the rights of dairy farmers, taking on the high and mighty.

Before the IT industry made India matter in the world, the biggest success story of the country was its dairy sector. From huge dependence on imports of milk powder, India became self-sufficient in milk and even started exporting milk powder and other milk products. Its annual milk production increased from 20 million tonnes in the 1970s to 80 million tonnes in the 1990s and 122 million tonnes now.

Who was responsible for this revolution? One person who more or less single-handedly organised millions of small and marginal farmers into very successful organisations was Verghese Kurien.

The cooperatives he organised on the basis of the Anand pattern are handling the entire gamut of milk production, collecting and paying for it twice a day, everyday, processing this milk for marketing and conserving the seasonal surpluses into milk powder. They have demonstrated that cooperatives do work as democratic institutions in India.

Kurien emphasised that democracy in Delhi needed to be underpinned by democracy in the villages. He was a firm believer in the unmatched combination of farmers and professionals working together to serve the rural areas.


Before Kurien came on the scene, the task of dairy development was being handled by the milk commissioners of the State. The Government milk schemes soon found that it was easy to use cheap imported milk in urban areas. These milk schemes in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta started with good intentions. To start with, they procured milk at prevailing prices and sold it at market prices. As producer prices rose, consumer prices needed to be raised. It was cheaper to bring in imported milk powder to keep urban prices low. India became dependent on imported milk powder, and the urban market was destroyed for rural milk producers.

The milk commissioners became ones with vested interest in the sector. Kurien then said that there were no milk commissioners in Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand, but there was plenty of milk there. His theory was that you could either have milk or milk commissioners. The milk commissioners in India opposed the setting up of cooperatives. The cooperative commissioners welcomed it initially but opposed it later, as Kurien did not want political interference in the working of the Anand cooperatives.


An incident comes to mind: the then Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Barkutallah Khan, did not agree to autonomy being given to the milk cooperatives as required under the Anand pattern. He told Kurien that Rajasthan’s farmers were not as capable of managing their businesses as Gujarat’s farmers. Kurien then said that if the CM’s constituency, Jodhpur (rural), was capable of electing him, surely they could manage their own little milk businesses. The CM agreed to the Anand pattern of cooperatives.

Kurien wanted major changes in the antiquated cooperative laws, which gave the powers of God to the Registrar of Cooperatives and made the Minister of Cooperation, boss of this God. When this matter went to Indira Gandhi, she also questioned Kurien on the capacities of our farmers to manage big business. Kurien is then reported to have told her that ‘you are now talking like the British who said we will give you freedom when you are ready’.

Kurien was fond of saying that to him replicating the Anand pattern was a mission. He would support all those who followed the Anand pattern of milk cooperatives. Those who follow will reach God ‘and those who keep discussing’ (as many States did) will stay where they were, he would say. States such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and MP did well. The others are still ‘discussing’. Kurien was a fearless karmayogi and he never asked for anything for himself. I recall when Jagjivan Ram wanted a private dairy to be funded under Operation Flood, Kurien’s blunt reply was that it could not be done. The Minister wanted him sacked, but the Prime Minister supported him.

He was blunt with the bureaucrats. In the early stages of the implementation of Operation Flood, the approval for the setting up of Mother Dairy in Delhi was pending for a long time with the Planning Commission. The Joint Secretary concerned said that he had some questions on the subject, such as the use of stainless steel in the milk tanks at the bulk vending machines since steel was imported and we were short of foreign exchange. Kurien informed him that the tanks in question were to be of fibre-glass reinforced plastic. The Joint Secretary had not read the relevant report.


He was as blunt with politicians as well. The Minister of Civil Supplies in the early 1980s was withholding approval to National Dairy Development Board’s (NDDB) vegetable oil and oilseed project. The same Minister’s staff had telephoned the general manager of Mother Dairy in Delhi to take back a driver who had been dismissed on a disciplinary case.

Kurien met the Minister and explained to him as to how the project in question would make India self-sufficient in edible oils on the lines of the milk project. The Minister did not seem to be interested in Kurien’s explanation. Kurien then asked him if there was anything on the Minister’s mind, hoping the Minister would raise the question of the dismissed driver.

The Minister did not say anything. Kurien then said, “Sir, there is this question of a driver that you want to be taken back. Before I came to you I asked the general manager of Mother Dairy that we need your approval to this Rs 300-crore project, so why can you not take this driver back. His reply was that the driver in question was dismissed on serious charges. He went to the court and lost his case. If I take him back, I will lose the moral authority to run Mother Dairy. My staff expects me to support them and that driver will not be taken back. You can now do whatever you want.” The Minister was taken aback and said, “I will support you but you will have to pay a price. You will have to help me manage the Asian Games.” Finally, the Minister did support the oilseed project.

Kurien played hard games with high stakes. When he presented NDDB’s plan to make India self-sufficient in edible oils in five years, Rajiv Gandhi questioned his targets by saying, ‘you took 20 years in milk, how can you do this in five years?’ Kurien’s reply was, “This time we are asking for a complete package of policy and powers to implement it.”

“But what are the guarantees?” quipped the Prime Minister. “Our heads,” replied Kurien. He got what he asked for and delivered self-sufficiency in three years instead of five.

For those who worked for Kurien, it was a blessing to have worked for the mission of alleviating rural poverty and enabling our poor to manage their own affairs.

(The author is former Managing Director, National Dairy Development Board. He worked with Kurien for 24 years.)

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Published on September 11, 2012
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