Verghese Kurien, despite spending over six decades in Gujarat, knew little Gujarati. But he still had excellent interaction with farmers. He graduated from Loyola College and joined the Guindy College of Engineering, both in Chennai. He underwent specialised training at the Imperial Institute of Animal Husbandry and Dairying in Bangalore and went to the Michigan State University in the United States on a Government of India scholarship to complete his Masters’ degree in mechanical engineering, with dairy engineering as a minor subject. He completed it in 1948.
Kurien was assigned a job at the Government Creamery at Anand in Gujarat to serve for the bond period. He completed the period and got the release order from the Government Creamery, but remained bonded to Anand.
Sardar Valabhbhai Patel had assigned him the task of solving the problems of the farmers in his constituency, Kaira, whenever the Home Minister received a representation from poor farmers.
After Sardar Patel, it was another “Patel” who tied Kurien to Anand. At the request of Tribhuvandas Patel, who had undertaken a mission, at the behest of Sardar Patel, to free the poor farmers and milk producers from the clutches of Polson, a powerful multinational company, Kurien joined the Anand Milk Union Limited (AMUL) in 1949.
No one knew then that the seeds were sown for a huge tree that would later spread its branches all over India and fragrance worldwide.
AMUL later made way for a larger milk-producing project, the Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers Union, and still later the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation. But it never lost sight of the original brand — AMUL — which is today a household name all over the country; people have come to identify milk and milk products with AMUL.
The success of the AMUL experiment attracted the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. He requested Kurien to help him replicate the AMUL model across the country. And the National Dairy Development Board was born in 1965 with the famous “milkman” as its founder-chairman.
As Kurien was unwilling to leave Anand, the tiny town was made the headquarters of one of the largest central sector boards.
Though power changed hands at the Centre, no succeeding government ever changed Kurien, who served at the NDDB for a record 33 years before handing over the baton to his one-time protégé Amrita Patel in 1998, albeit following some differences over the “corporatisation” of the cooperative movement.
“Promoting and establishing close to 1.50 lakh village cooperatives, with over 15 million members, and leading India to become the largest milk producer in the world, was no mean feat,” said Dr. Amrita Patel, acknowledging Kurien’s achievements during the period when, post-Independence, India was in its infancy, and the cooperative movement almost unheard of among the rural masses, who were subjected to exploitation by middlemen.
Not only the NDDB, Kurien also was the pioneer-founder of the Institute of Rural Management (IRMA), Anand, in 1979, which still is the only institute of its kind in the country providing management training in rural technologies.
Kurien remained the chairman of the IRMA till 2006, the year he also gave up the chairmanship of the GCMMF, which he was heading since 1973, both due to old-age and some controversies over his alleged “style of functioning.” All the institutions he founded and headed remained based in Anand as the powerful milkman could fend off all bureaucratic and political misadventures to claw into the rural turf.
“He strode like a titan across the bureaucratic barriers and obstacles that, at every stage of the NDDB’s history, could have brought it to its knees. But undaunted, he stood staunchly against the machinations of all those who beheld his achievement with envy and were affronted by the sheer tenacity of the man. By his example, he has taught us to act with courage when faced with those who oppose the interests of our nation and the farmers,” Dr. Amrita Patel said.
From milk, Kurien also ventured into cooperatives dealing in oil and oilseeds, vegetables and fruits — the later, albeit, with limited success.
According to GCMMF managing director R.S. Sodhi, “his was a life devoted to the Indian farmers and through them to the people of the country at large. After being sidelined by powerful political interests who connived to ease him out, for he would not allow them to meddle in his domain, Kurien still remained the quintessential milkman of India who lived a simple life in a modest abode.”
Among two of his prized possessions, besides the plethora of national and international honours he received for his contributions for the cause of farmers and co-operative movement, were two paintings — one, a large picture of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing global milk delegates with a young Kurien beside her, which was autographed at his residence by the late Prime Minister. The second was another painting autographed on separate occasions by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, first conquerors of Mount Everest.