Sep 11, 2012
Verghese Kurien: End of an era of milk-sufficiency
He came, he saw the plight of farmers, and crafted a highly successful cooperative ladder to bail them out. His vision, his marketing skills, and more importantly his courage to defy any kind of political meddling, turned Amul into a household name. But that's not the end of it. The passing of Dr Verghese Kurien, the milkman of India, certainly brings down the curtain on the era of milk self-sufficiency.
Verghese Kurien died unhappy.
Ever since he left National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) after being its chairman for 33 years, and passed on its reins to his own prodigee Dr Amrita Patel, Kurien realised that it was the beginning of the end for the dairy cooperatives. The women he groomed to take over from him, and all the efforts to get her installed despite stiff opposition from bureaucracy to pass on control to yet another IAS officer, Kurien was in for a shock when he found that Amrita Patel was beginning to undo what he had done all these years. But that's a story for a different day.
He stepped down from NDDB at the age of 76. And within the next few years, he was eased out from the board of Indian Rural Management Institute (IRMA) and also the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation. His nomination to the National Cooperative Dairy Federation of India was also rejected.
Like many in India, I too had been a Kurien admirer. But I never got an opportunity till then to meet him. It was only after an article I wrote some decades back for the Business Line -- Kurien ko gussa kyon aata hai -- that I was delighted to hear from him. Thanking me for what I wrote, I recall his words: "I don't remember having met you ever. But I follow and admire you. I know you are a lone crusader. I know you are fighting a bigger battle. Come, let's have a meal together."
That was certainly music to my ears.
Knowing a little bit of Kurien, and as someone who had continuously been on the trail of both the revolutions -- White as well as the Green -- I think what makes Kurien stand out was his ability to see through the destructive power of foreign aid. He knew that cheaper aid (or free aid) only increases dependence and is a deterrent to self-sufficiency. So when European Community offered massive supplies of butter oil as gift, and knowing well that India will eventually accept the free offer, Kurien carved out a strategy to utilise the butter oil quantity under Operation Flood II in a manner that it does not dampen the domestic dairy production ability. European Union was simply dumping its surplus onto us. Dumping destroys the domestic capabilities by depressing prices to producers. I had to do something as quickly as possible", he had once told me.
Accounting for 17% of the global share, India is the largest producer of milk in the world. The per capita availability has almost doubled from 117 gms to 220 gms per day.
"No one is happy with our being the top milk producer," he told me a couple of months back. All out efforts are now being made to destroy the very foundations of milk self-sufficiency. "Looking at the ongoing negotiations under World Trade Organisation (WTO) and now the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks with European Union, Australia and New Zealand, I can see the end coming," he went quiet for sometime. I tried to look into his eyes, but he avoided me.
I tried to reassure him that the spirit of self-reliance will never be defeated. There would be people who would stand up and oppose the takeover of the dairy industry. I am sure some of the political leaders would see through the design and stall any such move. It had happened in case of WTO. After all, even after 17 years of WTO coming into effect, the Agreement on Agriculture is still not complete. He only smiled and wished me well. Even though I was trying to put up a brave front, I dreaded the thought. I knew he knew it, but had probably not wanted to stretch it any further.
What actually worried Verghese Kurein was the slow and subtle take over of the cooperative dairy industry by the private sector. It was the autonomous liberalisation being pushed through joint collaborations, and the reduction in import tariffs, that actually gave him sleepless nights. This is what had caused a wide open split with his successor, Dr Amrita Patel.
"United States tells India that it must shift from oilseed cultivation because it is not cost effective," he would cite the example. "World Bank also supports this argument. But what they are not telling us is that the US provides more subsidies to its oilseed growers than the total output of India." Not that he was against trade, but he opposed the unethical and unjust trade rules that the developing countries were being forced to accept.
The White Revolution that everyone talks about did not happen on its own. Verghese Kurien had planned it well. In fact, the strategy he adopted ensuring that the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri understands the importance as well as the need for setting up dairy cooperatives, reflected his political maturity. He had arranged a visit of Lal Bahadur Shashtri to a village in Gujarat. But planned it so meticulously that the Prime Minister had little choice but stay overnight in the village. He arranged the Prime Minister's stay with a progressive farmer, and knew very well that Lal Bahadur Shashtri would spend a lot of time talking to farmers.
It happened exactly as he had planned. Lal Bahadur Shashtri not only met a large number of farmers who had come to see him but also sat through quite late in the night listening to them. In the morning, Lal Bahadur Shashtri asked Verghese Kurien as to why not set up dairy cooperatives as a way forward. This is exactly what Kurien had wanted to hear. And once Lal Bahudar Shashtri endorsed the idea, the seeds of the milk cooperatives were sown.
I am sure if Kurien had tried to convince the bureaucrats in the State and Centre, called on dairy experts to seek their expertise and spoken to the political leaders, there would have been no milk revolution by now. Whether we like it or not it was his political sharpness that made him organise the visit of the then Prime Minister. The rest is history. #