The late Verghese Kurien left an indelible mark on Amrita Patel. As a young veterinary scientist during the early days of the dairy cooperative movement at Anand in the 1960s and later as his successor at the helm of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), Patel saw Kurien’s ideologies shape the lives of millions of farmers for the better. In an interview with Vinay Umarji, she talks about this and what lies ahead. Edited excerpts:
What are your earliest memories of Kurien and the milk movement? How did you come to Anand and begin your work with Kurien?
I came to Anand when I was 15, when my father retired and decided to settle here. In those days, Amul was the only outfit to have a bulldozer and I used to wonder how it ran. One day, Dr. Kurien made me sit with him in it and showed me how it worked. He also smoked like a chimney; in those days, he had a tin of Red & White cigarettes. It was because of my father that at an early age, I could see so many villages and observe veterinary science work.
After I studied (Bachelors in veterinary science) and came back, I felt I was something and asked him for a job. But he said he had no space for me because in those days, Amul was an all-male outfit. But I said I would work in an honorary capacity, so I was attached to three veterinary doctors. After seven-eight months, I got a call from the GM (Kurien), saying, “We have built a cattle-feed factor and are getting an FAO expert as a nutritionist. She is a lady and is insisting on a lady assistant. I am giving you this job for three months. Don’t expect anything after that.”
But I was asked to continue. Later in life, when I joined NDDB, I asked him if he gave me the job because I was H M Patel’s daughter. He said, “I can’t deny that the first three months of your job was because of your father. But, later, you proved yourself.” I felt a relief, because in those days, there was resentment if you were a woman. In those days, as a woman, you were seen as denying a needy man a job.
And, then, I was a real headache for Amul because I used to fight for little things. I was quite defiant.
How would you sum up his contribution to the dairy movement?
It’s not so much about his contribution, as about his qualities. When he came to Anand, he didn’t expect to stay, but Tribhuvandas (founder of the co-op) made him understand. What he was involved in initially was development of one district cooperative. But his contribution to the dairy was in taking a farmer-owned structure and converting it into a business model. Today, in our country when we talk about cooperatives, we think these are government-owned. That was not Dr Kurien’s message. He was clear that the cooperative was a business model and its shareholders were its members. It’s got to be sustainable and pay for itself.
In the movement, Kurien had a team, including Tribhuvandas and H M Dalaya, who trusted him completely. That was a great thing for Amul, that it had a benevolent chairman, whose thinking was in the interest of the farmers. And, there were these two professionals who had the integrity wherein all the decisions made were in the interest of farmers. What Dr Kurien had combined in him was ideology, professionalism, integrity and business sense. I used to ask him, “You have these qualities, but when you build the next cooperative, and unless that cooperative have a Kurien, what will happen?” He used to say that if you had a Tribhuvandas, you would have a Kurien. But the fact is that finding the Kuriens will be equally difficult.
At a very early age, he had recognised the essential elements of what contributes to success. Kurien was clear, that unlike other agricultural products, in milk, the market would stimulate the demand. He did not provide inputs first. He developed markets first, that gave stimulus to production. In Operation Flood-I, he knew the best markets were the metros, and around them, one needed to develop cooperatives, so that the milk moved to those metros. Also, right to the bitter end, he argued with the cooperatives that you had to employ professionals to market the milk.
How do you see it carried forward so that the maximum people benefit from it? Is there a meeting point between corporatisation and cooperatives, so that the farmer gets a share in the brand?
The thing that Dr Kurien also recognised in his lifetime is that the real problem with our cooperatives is the Cooperative Societies Act and the way it is written. It is a legacy of the British; it was never meant for big cooperatives but for small credit cooperatives. He spent his entire life, till he retired, fighting and pleading with the government to amend the Cooperative Societies Act and give cooperatives the freedom they need. N T Rama Rao passed another parallel cooperative societies Act (when chief minister of Andhra) which says if people come together and form a cooperative and they take no money from the government, no equity, they are completely free to operate under a separate Act. In this new cooperative, the responsibility to hold regular elections is with the board, holding an annual general meeting is with the board, and if the board does not do it, then the penalty is on the board. So, here is a progressive legislation.
Then, a couple of unions came from Andhra and said we have taken a government loan which we want to return; will you please help us? We gave them a loan to make them free. They started operating free under the Mutually Aided Cooperative Societies Act, but the Congress government then ordered them all back under the original Act by issuing an ordinance. So, this is the extent to which the government does not wish cooperatives to be fully autonomous. This was what he fought against. That’s why he himself was supporting another legislation to give cooperatives the status of a producer company.
Unfortunately, the media has understood a producer company as corporatisation, which it is not, it is a cooperative registered under the Companies Act. Look at the differences -- there is a cap on dividend, it is an institution of users, selling shares among themselves, no investor can come and take hold. It is what we call new-generation cooperatives. Kurien had said this is the only hope for cooperatives.
Despite the movement being considered successful, we are still short of milk. How can this be corrected? Does it mean the revolution is over? In the last 10 years while demand has grown at six million tonnes per year, the supply has grown only by 3.5 mt annually. What is the road ahead?
We are not short at milk. The demand is growing faster than production. That is why (we are working on) the National Dairy Plan. Cooperatives in our country have been given the responsibility to first meet liquid milk demand. Today, the private sector milk processing capacity is more than the cooperative capacity. When the international prices are not good, the private sector downs its shutters. We know the demand is going to increase and we have to prepare for that. And, that’s what the National Dairy Plan is all about. Until the government puts in a mechanism to know what is the milk production, how much butter is made, how much powder is being made, and is there a shortfall or not, we cannot plan. We are also saying that we will double the 3.5 mt annual growth in the next 15 years.
Kurien always kept politics at bay from the organisations he was heading. Do you think politicisation comes in the way of running cooperatives professionally?
It (politicisation) happened under his nose. It happened the entire life he struggled. That’s why I am saying in our dialogue with every state government that, let the board appoint a chief executive and not let the state government put a person. Put professionals in key positions, starting with a marketing head and finance head who knows about managing money. Which is why a producer company has a provision for co-opting. We can’t blame a farmer-elective board. Are they equipped to manage? They are very good at managing at the village level but when it comes to a business of many hundred crores, I am looking at the economics of processing and marketing beyond them. In the 1960s, there were six men with PhDs in one union in Amul. That was the importance given to professionals to run the business of farmers. Today, you don’t see that.
In the producer company, from day one when a person is elected, he undergoes a six-month course which teaches him how to run a business. It is not fair to expect him to know the business. Then you can bring in a finance man and marketing man to grow the business but cooperatives don’t allow that.
Professionalising the cooperatives is getting its members to understand (business). How are our cooperative elections held today? Party panel? Where do you get the right man? It’s a party of the day and not a man of the day. Thats what we have to change and he (Kurien) tried hard to change (it).