The architect of the white revolution

The architect of the white revolution

Ahmedabad: Verghese Kurien, architect of the white revolution that made India the world’s largest producer of milk, died on Sunday at a Nadiad hospital, about 20km from Vadodara in Gujarat, after a brief illness. He was 91.

Amul, the dairy brand Kurien turned into a household name in India, is the flagship of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) that counts at least three million farmers from some 12,000 villages as members.

Kurien not only orchestrated this remarkable feat, but also was instrumental in the establishment of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (Irma).

“An entire era has ended with Kurien’s demise. When for the first time he floated the idea before the Planning Commission in the early 1970s of forming a federation of milk cooperatives where farmers would control procuring, processing and marketing, everybody in the room was sceptical," said economist and Irma chairman Y.K. Alagh, who was then a member of India’s apex planning agency. “Only Kurien was very confident and one can see the result."

Kurien was born on 26 November 1921 in Calicut, Kerala. After graduating in mechanical engineering from the University of Madras in 1943, he worked briefly with Tata Iron and Steel Co. Ltd, now known as Tata Steel Ltd. He then studied dairy engineering at Michigan State University in the US on a government scholarship on condition that he had to work for a few years on government demand.

On his return to India, he took up a job in the sleepy town of Anand, some 60km from Ahmedabad, on a suggestion by his uncle, who was a highly placed government official.

The farmers of the area at that time had gone on a milk strike, refusing to toe the line of the local trade cartel. They formed a cooperative in 1946 called Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers Union Ltd.

Kurien wanted to resign and move out of Anand as quickly as possible. In 1949, when he got release orders, he was eager to pack off to Mumbai, but was persuaded by Tribhuvandas Patel, then chairman of the Kaira cooperative, to stay back. He promised to stay for a few days to put together dairy equipment of the cooperative; he never went away.

His forced tenure at Anand changed the destiny of India’s dairy sector. He started helping the fledgling cooperative and the rest is history.

The first dairy cooperative union in Gujarat was formed in 1946 with two village dairy cooperative societies as its members. The number of member societies has now increased to 16,100, with 3.2 million members.

With the cooperative movement, he helped to create a model not only for India, but for developing countries throughout the world. A significant feature of the movement Kurien led is that milk is purchased largely from women, empowering them economically and socially.

The success of Amul was captured in Manthan, a film made by Shyam Benegal. The film, starring Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil, was made in 1976 and became a landmark in cinema history with as many as 500,000 farmers sponsoring the movie, each contributing 2. It was for the first time in India that a feature film was financed by farmers.

Kurien started an advertising campaign in 1966-67 for Amul that featured a girl in a polkadot skirt, which still remains popular.

India’s Operation Flood programme, of which milk producers’ cooperatives were the central plank, emerged as India’s largest rural employment programme and unleashed the larger dimension of dairy development. NDDB ensured replication of the Amul model across India. The country’s milk procurement increased from 20 million tonnes (mt) a year in the 1960s to 122 mt in 2011.

His life’s mission has been largely accomplished, Kurien said in his memoirs I Too Had A Dream, published in 2005.

Kurien was showered with accolades for his pathbreaking work. The government gave him the Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest civilian award. He also received the World Food Prize, the Magsaysay Award, and the Carnegie-Wateler World Peace Prize for his work in villages.

Kurien’s term as the chairman of GCMMF ended on a rather sour note after some members of the board alleged he had been holding the position illegally for 34 years and passed a no-confidence motion against him.

“Having served the cooperative dairy sector for over five decades with complete dedication and commitment, is this the kind of treatment I deserve?" asked an emotionally charged Kurien, saying all the allegations against him were baseless.

Announcing his resignation in March 2006, he levelled allegations against NDDB and its chairperson Amrita Patel, whom he had handpicked as his successor on the board. Patel denied the charges.

Kurien was never one to mince words. Recalling one instance, economist Alagh said when Kurien proposed to sell sweets made of milk, his move was opposed by a government official. “How can a man who can’t even milk a cow know the dairy sector?" Kurien retorted at the time, Alagh said.

R.S. Sodhi, managing director, GCMMF, who worked closely with Kurien for 25 years, said that while hiring people, the milkman of India focused only on three things—integrity, integrity and integrity.