“I’ll make shoe polish in it!” The speaker of that thundering line, depending on the narrator, is either India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru or Verghese Kurien whose birth centenary we celebrate today, on November 26. The event was the inauguration of India’s first milk drying plant, a part of the Anand Cooperative Milk Union (Amul) in 1956. The reason for it was that a committee of international dairy experts had opined that buffalo milk, which is what Amul collected from its thousands of members, could not be dried by using the same technology employed abroad to dry cow milk. Either way, it shows Kurien’s ability to defy handed-down wisdom. Invariably, this defiance was for the greater good of small farmers in India.
In 1956, Kurien was just 35, having had the experience of managing India’s first dairy cooperative for seven years. But he was convinced that the lot of his members, almost all of whom had only a few buffaloes, often just one or two, could not be bettered unless the problem of seasonality of the animal’s milk production was properly addressed. It was a universal one as far as dairying is concerned. Western countries and New Zealand dealt with it by separating the surplus milk in the flush season into its fat and non-fat components through drying and recombining them to form milk again in the lean season. Kurien wanted to try the same strategy in India. He had persuaded Unicef to gift the plant and Nehru was to inaugurate it. The plant worked despite the doom-saying of the negative nellies. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the next five decades, Kurien was to display his ability to defy others’ wisdom and persuade them to accept his choice many times. The most famous example of this is Operation Flood (OF), the signature programme of National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), a statutory body of Government of India he headed from its inception in 1965 till 1998. In the mid-1960s, the European Economic Community was sitting on a mountain of butter and milk powder, the surplus it could not consume or sell abroad. It planned to gift a large chunk of it to India, then just recovering from a series of major droughts and everyone’s favourite charity destination. Kurien realised that the free distribution of this gift in India would kill the nascent market for dairy products, bringing their producers again to the edge of ruination.
He then devised a plan whereby NDDB would receive the commodities on behalf of the government and sell the recombined milk in India (which was still very short of it, with just under 70 gm available per person per day) at market prices. It would then use the funds generated from the sales to revamp the entire dairy economy, by promoting cooperatives of the Anand pattern in selected districts, with a central modern dairy to process the milk. Seventy per cent of these funds were to be loans on soft terms and the rest as grant. Although Prime Minister Indira Gandhi backed it, this was not as easy as it sounds today. Many powerful politicians had envisaged the extension of their empires by controlling the distribution of the gifted commodities. Kurien merrily stepped on their toes and made them (and the bureaucrats) accept OF entirely on NDDB’s terms. All through this period, Kurien refused to move to Delhi and conducted his business from Anand, which gradually transformed itself from a sleepy town to be the milk capital of India.
Despite numerous hiccups, the programme worked. It went through four iterations and lasted 26 years from 1970. Kurien had established a highly successful marketing organisation, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, also based in Anand. By the early 1990s, India had become the world’s largest milk producer and an attractive entry point for multinationals. Kurien saw this as a major threat and lobbied successfully to keep multinationals away from India. The federation has carried on that task faithfully, now vastly more powerful with an annual turnover of $8 billion.
OF’s measure of success is provided by a major statistic: While foodgrain production went up about three times from about 108 million tonne in 1970-71 to 300 million tonne in 2019-20, milk production increased by an astounding nine times in the same period from 21 million tonne to over 200 million tonne. The per capita availability of milk in India now exceeds 400 gm.
All this had a most important effect on the family decision-making. Now that they had regular, dependable and often sizeable cash income supplementing their periodic and uncertain crop incomes, they could see dairying as an enterprise, and not a subsistence or default occupation. The market power asymmetry was effectively countered by cooperatives, which are large enough to enjoy economies of scale through the use of technology. Their concern has moved from remunerative prices to their stability, value-addition and surplus generation for all.
Kurien would surely have been more than a little amused by the current brouhaha about the farmers’ agitation. He would think: Why ask for support prices or monopoly procurement, when farmers’ organisations can powerfully and effectively lobby to protect their own interests?