Many wish for legendary “Milk Man of India” Verghese Kurien ’s presence in our midst today as the conflict between the Central government and the farming community on the issue of the farm laws appears to be still unresolved. November 26, 2021 was also Kurien’s 100th birth anniversary. Kurien’s deep understanding of Indian farming and the trust he earned from the farming community could have helped to find a possible solution to the current crisis. His widely cited observation, that “India’s place in the sun will come from the partnership between the wisdom of its rural people and the skill of its professionals”, captures the essence of his life and mission.
There was a time when Kurien seemed to be an improbable architect of a rural revolution that would eventually transform the lives of millions of farmers in Gujarat. There were many who saw him as an outsider to that world. He hailed from distant Kerala, belonged to an upper middle-class Christian family, and was educated in a western university in a subject like metallurgy which is far removed from agriculture.
Only as a cooperative model
Yet, quietly and with self-confidence, Kurien won the farmers over with his professional integrity and his vision of a central role for farmers in India’s journey of development. It is on that foundation that Kurien went on to design his idea of Amul as a co-operative, turned it over the years into a global brand, and later launched the White Revolution that would make India the largest milk producing nation in the world. It was all a well-knit plan.
Central to Kurien’s vision was the co-operative model of business development. He decided that Amul would grow and establish its identity neither as a public sector undertaking nor as a private corporate entity. The co-operative model, he felt, was in the best interests of Gujarat’s milk producers.
Kurien had a deep distrust of India’s bureaucracy. He saw it as a leftover of the colonial mindset and the product of a western lifestyle. Equally, he had reservations about the social objectives of the private sector. Much of the corporate sector, he felt, was led more by a profit motive than by public good. Kurien’s fascination for the co-operative model was also influenced by Gandhian thinking on poverty alleviation and social transformation. He viewed co-operatives as the closest embodiment of Mahatma Gandhi’s powerful insight that “what the world needs is not mass production, but production by the masses”.
Charting a path and questions
Notwithstanding his reservations, it must be said to Kurien’s credit that he saw a great deal — that he could borrow from the ideas and the practices of the corporate world. In areas such as innovations in marketing and management, branding and technology, the private sector excels and sets benchmarks for businesses across the world to follow and adopt.
At the same time, Amul was steadily emerging as a laboratory, developing significant innovations and evolving technologies of its own, and these have strengthened its competitive power against multinational corporations. Its biggest success came when under the leadership of H.M. Dalaya, a distinguished dairy engineer, Amul achieved a breakthrough in converting buffalo milk into skim milk powder and condensed milk. It was one single innovation that gave Amul a distinct competitive advantage and profoundly changed the lives of milk producers in Gujarat and beyond.
Two questions are central to evaluating Verghese Kurien’s legacy and his contributions to India’s growth story.
One, how has Amul performed in the years after its iconic founder left the world in 2012?
Second, how far has the cooperative movement in general met its professed objective of an economic transformation at the grass-roots level.
Amul has grown steadily on the strong foundation laid by its visionary leader, diversifying its product range and adding new ones. Amul continues to remain one of India’s best-known food brands and is an inspiration to other dairy cooperatives such as Nandini in Karnataka, Aavin in Tamil Nadu and Verka in Punjab.
Focus on digital revolution
Sadly, Amul’s success has not been the catalyst for similar movements across other agricultural commodities in India. For millions of farmers, life is still a struggle for survival.
India’s digital revolution has bypassed the agriculture sector. India talks about smart cities, not smart villages, nor even liveable villages. Farmers’ suicides are not uncommon, weighing heavily on the nation’s conscience.
The cooperative movement in India is in a state of flux. It has suffered due to lack of professional management, adequate finance and poor adoption of technology.
In the meantime, the pandemic has deepened the urban-rural divide. While the corporate sector is reaping billions on the crest of a stock market boom, incomes are drying in rural India and the nation seems to be facing a grave human tragedy. This is truly a moment to reflect on Verghese Kurien’s remarkable legacy and the unfinished task he has left behind.
C. Sarat Chandran is Senior Fellow, London School of Economics