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business leaders > profiles > Dr Verghese Kurien
Dr Kurien: Voyager on the milky way

Victor Hugo, the famous 19th century French novelist, poet and dramatist said that there was one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that was an idea whose time had come. Dr Verghese Kurien found such an idea in 1946, rolled up his sleeves, and got down to raising an army of milk producers; today his 'army ' of the White Revolution `activists' all over India stands over 9-million strong.

As a result of his nearly four decades of sustained efforts to bring the benefits of modern technology and marketing to the ordinary dairy farmer, in 1998 India surpassed the US to become the world's largest producer of milk with an annual growth rate 5-6 per cent, against the world's 1 per cent.

Born on 26 November 1921 in Calicut (now Kozhikode), a seaport in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Kurien arrived in May 1949 at the dairy department of the government of India in Anand, now in India's western state of Gujarat, to take charge as the dairy engineer. Kurien worked here for seven months.

India had just gained Independence. Kurien recalls that Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, then the home minister, wanted the farmers to organise themselves to control milk production, procurement and marketing, and free themselves from the control of traders and middlemen. He wanted to entrust these tasks to qualified professionals, and this is where Kurien grabbed the buffalo by her horns.

Kurien quit his job to become the manager of the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers' Union, Anand, (now Amul) where its founder and the 1963 Roman Magsaysay Award winner Tribhuvandas Patel was trying to organise the 200-odd milk producers of the surrounding Kaira district into a cooperative for supplying milk to the government-run Bombay Milk Scheme. Kurien infused the fledgling organisation with his pioneering drive and expertise in modern technology and management, and powerful marketing and branding strategies, while at the same time preserving and vitalising the cooperative spirit of the venture.

Sceptics had their doubts: Could 'natives' handle sophisticated dairy equipment? Could western-style milk products be processed from buffalo milk? Could a mere farmers' cooperative market butter and cheese to sophisticated urban consumers?

The Amul team — farmers and Kurien's professionals — together confounded the cynics by processing a variety of high-grade dairy products, several of them for the first time from buffalo milk, and marketing them nationally against competition from professionally managed corporate rivals.

Kurien also had to forge his way through hurdles created by the "milk lobby" — the powerful dairy traders and local panchayat and zilla politicians — whose financial clout depended on their control of the milk trade, which the cooperative threatened. Kurien's cooperative venture was built on a simple but compelling logic — mass consumption and mass production must go hand in hand to bring all round prosperity.

He led the producers in their struggle for command over the resources they created, a struggle to obtain equitable returns and a struggle for liberation from dependence on middlemen, a struggle against exploitation. It was an impossible task, and at times he faced threats to his life.

The result was the now famous Amul pattern (or Anand pattern), evolved by Kurien, which eventually became a global role model for dairying as an instrument of rural development. In India the model has been extended to other commodities like edible oil, fruits, vegetables and salt.

Amul (acronym for Anand Milk Union Ltd) was the brand name adopted by the cooperative for its milk and milk products, while Kurien went on to establish the state level Gujarat Milk Marketing Federation Ltd in 1973. Amul is today the largest food brand in India, with a wide range of products.

Citing Kurien's "extraordinary and dynamic leadership" in 1965 prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri mooted the creation of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) , to replicate the Amul pattern on a nationwide basis, and named him chairman, a post he held till 1998.

The Indian parliament endorsed Kurien's work by passing an Act in 1987, declaring NDDB as an institution of national importance. As founder chairman of NDDB Kurien catalysed the modernisation of India's dairy industry and triggered a nationwide dairy cooperative movement.

As chairman of NDDB Dr Kurien's major engagement was with Operation Flood, a spectacularly successful multipurpose programme that created a flood of milk that turned scarcity into surplus, popularly known as the White Revolution. Operation Flood ran under Kurien's leadership in three phases for 26 years, with three principal objectives:

  • Making dairying India's largest self-sustainable rural employment programme
  • Bringing India close to self-sufficiency in milk production
  • Trebling the nation's milk production within a span of two-and-a-half decades to make India the world's largest milk producer

In 1979 Dr Kurien spearheaded the establishment of the Institute of Rural Management at Anand (IRMA), which has the mandate of contributing to the professional management of rural organisations. It works closely with cooperatives, NGOs, governments and national and international agencies.

The main strength of Kurien's illustrious pursuit lies in the fact that he successfully built a truly Indian brand that is globally competitive, while keeping the producing, owning and marketing firmly in the hands of millions of farmers.

Kurien's professional life has been dedicated to empowering millions of humble Indian milk producers, in whom he saw an unsuspected economic resource and potential at the bottom of the pyramid. ''Without their involvement, we cannot succeed. With their involvement, we cannot fail...'' remains his simple but fail-safe inspiration.

Kurien has churned up an economic miracle by turning a milk-scarce India of the '50s and '60s into a land of surplus by the '70s and brought prosperity to ten-million grassroots milk producers. When they walk the path to the local milk collection centres every morning with their pots full of milk, it is indeed a happy hour for Dr Kurien, the irrepressible milkman of India.

Compiled by Shubha Khandekar



Also see:
Dr Verghese Kurien: background
White Revolution
National Dairy Development Board
Operation Flood
Institute of Rural Management, Anand
Amul Pattern
Amul Brand

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