Robert Kennedy himself agrees that he does not look like a milkman in his full-sleeved shirt, trousers and formal shoes. But Kennedy, an ITI graduate, has indeed been in the business of selling milk to over 150 families, tea stalls and hotels in the Puthur area of Tiruchi for over 15 years now.

“I took over this business from my father, S. Kulandai Samy,” says Kennedy, speaking at his residence in Tennur which doubles up as his dairy’s distribution centre. “My father used to own cows, but now we have sold them, and concentrate only on distributing the milk that our suppliers send us from the villages within three hours of its arrival here.”

His days have two shifts, from 4.30 a.m. to 9 a.m, and from 3.30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

“Holidays, illness, rain, family commitments – we have no excuse to take an off-day,” says Kennedy. “It’s a hard life, and I don’t think my two sons will want to follow me.”

Compared to his father, though, Kennedy agrees that he has an easier schedule. “I used to cycle all the way to Manikandam village (7km from the Tiruchi), to collect the milk, and then distribute it all as soon as possible,” says Kulandai Samy, who started out in 1965. “I had lesser customers, and profits, but greater peace of mind.”

Today the dairy supplies 350 litres a day, bought from contracted farmers and delivered by van. A staff team of three members helps Robert Kennedy and his brother in the distribution.

Kennedy rues the fact that many apartment blocks in Tiruchi refuse to switch on the generator for milkmen to use the lift during power cuts. “It’s not an easy task to carry heavy cans manually up all the floors, but we do it, because our customers cannot be kept waiting,” he says.

The introduction of packaged milk hit business initially, but Kennedy says that fresh milk has its own market. “Fresh milk may not last as long as pasteurised milk, but it is certainly tastier,” he says.

Technology has come to the aid of the milk trade in many ways, says Kennedy, as more dairy farmers opt for mechanised milking and cross-bred high yield cattle.

“The improved transport system has helped us broaden our customer base,” he adds.

His dairy already sells milk by-products such as ghee and buttermilk, but Kennedy’s dream project is to develop items such as basundhi (thickened and sweetened milk) and paneer (cottage cheese) for local stores.

“Milk has a steady market. Today I am serving the children and grandchildren of my father’s customers,” he smiles.

(A new column on men and women who make Tiruchi what it is)