I HAD THE privilege of presenting Verghese Kurien to the Chennai audience thrice. First, in 1976, at the Madras Press Club; it was a scintillating interactive session.Next, in 1994, at the IE Business Excellence Award function; the milk-man made an exciting hour-long speech at the CLRI Triple Helix Hall. And finally in 2003 at the Guindy Engineering College, when over thousand undergrad and post-grad students were treated to a delightful presentation on the White Revolution. In all these Kurien described with passion the revolutionary changes brought about in the lives of millions of farmers through milk co-operatives.
What a phenomenal infusion of science, technology and management through simple and easy to understand economic organisation!
Don’t have milk commissioners...
One of my earliest contacts with Kurien was at a conference in Chennai in the late 1970s organised by the then TN Milk Commissioner Louis Menezes. In the well-attended meeting, after the Milk Commissioner welcomed him, Kurien began his address: “I was in New Zealand;the whole bloody place was full of milk.” Kurien turned towards Menezes and continued: “I investigated the reason and found that there was no Milk Commissioner in New Zealand.” Kurien continued: “I had occasion to visit Denmark. The country again was full of milk. I enquired;again I found, there was no milk commissioner!” He continued this narration pointing to Netherlands, France... and concluded with the moral: ”If we need milk in plenty, we should not have Milk Commissioners!”
Kurien firmly believed that as in most developed countries, milk production should be organised by farmers’ co-operatives with least interference by the government.
Painstaking efforts in forming milk cooperatives…
Kurien made use of milk powder donated by the European Union to expand the operation flood programme that was so successful in Gujarat. Funding the states liberally, he encouraged them form milk producers co-operatives and unite them under a union of co-operatives at the district level. I had the opportunity to witness the evolution of such a co-operative in the Erode district. Dr E Madhavan was deputed by Kurien to implement this project. This veterinary doctor was so committed: I accompanied him in his jeep driven by him, in the early hours, to villages in Erode, persuading farmers in his broken
Tamil (Madha-van is from Kerala), to form co-operatives. Months later Madhavan took me around, with understandable satisfaction, the Erode dairy; built with assistance of NDDB that started meeting the milk needs of Chennai Metro.
Kurien invited me to Kaira. Those nine days that I spent there were among the most memorable. The visit included a meeting with the Chairman of the Kaira Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union, Tribhuvandas Patel. I visited dairies at Sabarkantha, Banaskantha and the factories of Amul that processed milk in such large volumes to feed even distant Kolkata; saw the profuse of butter, ghee and cheese and the amazing adaptation of food processing technology. Italian machines to produce meat balls were adapted to make gulab jamuns! Kurien also showed me Manthan, a feature film in which Girish Karnad was portrayed as a dairy manager put in charge of building the co-operatives. It was a depiction of a real life story. Soon after the Erode dairy got established as a flourishing entity, politicians usurped control diluting the Kaira concept of a large co-operative,owned and managed by farmers.
From small village cooperatives to a state federation…
Kurien assiduously built a system that initially took on established private milk producers who were exploiting both the milk producers and the customers. He built milk co-operatives at the village level, assured them steady fair price and full procurement of whatever was offered at prices related to the fat content. He created a system to collect the milk from these co-operatives twice a day and transported milk to chilling centres and then to processing centres.Payments were fair and quick. Kurien set apart a portion of the price collected to offer quality veterinary services to the members. I remember veterinarians rushing with wellstacked medicines and equipment for 30 km at midnight to attend the delivery of a calf, a facility not quite available for humans! Kurien united village co-operatives to a district level co-operative union. These flourished within the state,until they were federated into a single producers’ cooperative federation under the state.
Scarcity to surging surplus!
Until the 1960s, milk availability was scarce in Chennai.For a wedding you had to bulk book from a co-operative at Ayanavaram; you would not get all the indent; it was rationed! How rapidly the concept spread! Scarcity that characterised milk availability vanished in quick time. I remember Kurien’s explanation: “If milk can be transported from Europe or New Zealand efficiently and effectively to countries in Africa, why can’t this be done within India?”
Of course there was resistance to change all along. I remember the long debate over switching to sachet packing and subsequently the introduction of tetra packs. Today the practice of the earlier era, of supplying milk in bottles,collecting them back, re-filling and transporting them over long distances looks wasteful. Kurien used all his charm and bull-dozed resistance to change for the better.
Prime Minister in a Kaira village
Kurien firmly believed that the government and the bureaucrats should be kept at a distance. In the beginning,he was reluctant to continue to live at Kaira where he was posted initially to discharge his obligation for pursuing scholarship at the US. Tribhuvandas Patel prevailed upon him to stay back when he was preparing to leave at the end of his contract with the Kaira milk co-operative. He took on multinationals including Polson and Nestle successfully making milk powder out of buffalo milk, a technology not known till then.
“The father of the White Revolution turned red with anger over the all pervasive, all consuming corruption: “It is so open, so widespread and so rampant that even the people of India, supine they are, will one day lift their head and protest. It can be a mighty revolution,”warned Kurien. – IE May 1994 issuePrime Minister Shastri stayed in a village in Kaira district and was deeply impressed by the revolution taking place. The irrepressible Kurien remarked with a chuckle: “it was such a costly experiment ensuring the security of the Prime Minister in a remote Gujarati village.” Shastri’s visit paved the way for the setting up NDDB and the launch of Operation Flood.
Kurien steadfastly stuck to Kaira even after he won the admiration of successive prime ministers including Nehru, Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Moraji Desai. He successfully resisted efforts by the bureaucrats to shift milk administration to Delhi. To meet the need for experts in rural management, he set up the Institute for Rural Management (IRMA) in Anand.
Replicate the milk supply chain to other perishables
Kurien strode like a colossus for over six decades. The Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) evolved into a giant with a turnover of around Rs 13,000 crore. Kurien attempted a similar revolution for organising the procurement and marketing of fruits and vegetables,oilseeds and edible oil. If only these had recorded successes comparable to milk, India would not be debating the opening up for foreign investments in retail trade. The Kaira experiment and the Anand pattern need to be replicated for reinvigorating the whole food chain from grains to a plethora of perishables.
GCMMF, along with the National Dairy Development Board, spearheaded India’s milk revolution and enabled India to emerge the largest producer of milk in the world. Last year the country produced 122 million tonnes of milk, way ahead of the production of United States.
The Anand pattern was so successful in Gujarat. In neighbouring Maharashtra, for instance, milk production is managed by all the three segments- co-operatives,government and the private sector. In other parts of the country also, milk business has attracted a number of private entrepreneurs including Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Chandramogan in Tamil Nadu. Agriculture universities like Punjab and Haryana have also helped improve the breeds in turn enhancing productivity. Karnataka built its own model with handsome funding from the World Bank.
Yet strangely, the milk commissioner so much riled by Kurien, has not vanished.