Shankkar Aiyar Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution,
and Accidental India
Verghese Kurien, the father of the Milk Revolution, would have turned 96 on November 26. Kurien reached Anand, in Gujarat, at the age of 28 in 1949. At the time, India produced around 17 million tonnes of milk—and 74 per cent of the demand was met through imports. In 2012, when Kurien had passed away, India was producing 127 million tonnes of milk. In the past 100 years, a handful of men and women individually catalysed the transformation of India. Indisputably, Verghese Kurien is one of them. Yet, successive governments have shied away from bestowing the nation’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, on a titan who stood up to be counted, who engineered a revolution, and one who embodied the idea of a true nationalist.
Kurien arrived in Anand, in the wake of serendipity—on Friday the 13th, 1949. He was to take charge of the milk plant in Anand that very day. A colleague pointed the ominousness of the date and suggested he take charge the next day. Kurien brushed off the superstition and took charge the day he arrived. He said, half in jest, that he had no plans to stay long.
Kurien stayed back, struck by the passion of Tribhuvandas Patel, who was chosen by Sardar Vallabhai Patel to unite farmers against exploitation by unscrupulous players and lead the Kaira Cooperative. He found a cause worthy of his rebellious nature. In 2012, Molly Verghese Kurien explained it as the coming together of people and events. “He decided to stay back to help people who were helpless in their circumstance.”
The problem of milk scarcity was identified in 1928 in a report by Lord Linlithgow, who recommended a series of steps from upgrading livestock to improving quality of feed to funding and organising the farmers under a collective. New Zealand had done it as early as in 1871—first organising farmers into cooperatives, then building dairy under these cooperatives to emerge as one of the world’s largest players.
Kaira was the laboratory where challenge was leveraged into opportunity. In 1950, India was wracked by milk scarcity. It depended on global charity for milk, baby feed and other milk products. For the planners, milk scarcity was a seasonal issue of supply, to be resolved through imports.Kurien saw it as a national crisis of per capita availability, the resolution of which would enable better incomes for farmers. He inverted the supply model. Instead of cattle being ferried to outskirts of cities to be housed and milked in unhygienic sheds, milk was collected and processed to be delivered where needed. The logic was simple: move milk on wheels instead of hooves.
By 1954, Kaira was a live, viable model for both ramping up milk production and for creating supplementary incomes for farmers. The Kaira model had a series of powerful supporters—besides Sardar Patel they included Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji
Desai and Indira Gandhi. By the early sixties, Kurien had created Brand Amul, which had begun to challenge multinationals and making waves. Indeed, in December 1964, on a visit to Anand, Shastri saw the potential and told Kurien to replicate the model nationally promising him all the help. The officialdom at the Centre and the states though was unmoved.
Meanwhile, thanks to inaction, scarcity and per capita availability worsened; and black marketing in baby food was common. Milk production barely rose from 17 million tonnes to just 21 million tonnes in two decades. After four five-year plans, India continued to import as much as 55 per cent of the demand for milk products through imports. Indeed, through the fifties and the sixties India was importing around 60,000 tonnes of milk powder.
Despite the rising scarcity and evangelism by Kurien, chief ministers blockaded replication of the model. Typically, the CMs would send him to the agriculture minister, who would send him to the milk commissioners. Entrenched interests came into play. One milk commissioner asked Kurien what the department would do if farmers owned dairies. The politicians saw the creation of a self-sustaining monolith in the rural economy as a threat to their business and electoral model.
The idea of self-sufficiency threatened the network of patronage. A lesser mortal would have given up, but Kurien did not. He often said, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible.” Thematically, replication of the Kaira model required the states to organise cooperatives, but they thwarted this idea. He came up with an alternate model where the national grid would fund the organising of cooperatives. This required around `600 crore and the system would not make funds available.
Frustrated by the system, Kurien struggled for funds. In 1968, the European Economic Commission offered its “excess production” as aid. Kurien proposed leveraging the aid as venture capital. Using the proceeds from sales of milk products as funding, Kurien set up the national grid and triggered Operation Flood in 1970. In 2015-16, India produced 155 million tonnes of milk. Today, the Amul model has enabled India emerge as the largest milk producer enabling a better future for the members of 1.44 lakh cooperatives and farmers, empowering millions of women. There are Amulya tonnes and litres of reasons to confer the Bharat Ratna on Verghese Kurien. The most important is his role in the transformation of millions of lives.