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GROUNDBREAKING: Verghese Kurien fought feudal interests and big business to deliver milk to millions of poor mothers and kids
VERGHESE KURIEN, who pioneered milk production by forging cooperatives of farmers and cattle breeders, a model replicated in many countries, may have died a disappointed man on Sept 8.
It was not prolonged, age-related illness. He was 90 and did not lack recognition or awards. His mission to keep out foreign milk producers was defeated by his own longtime protégé, Amrita Patel.
Kurien was a product of the Cold War era, while Patel wants multinational corporations (MNCs) to come and compete. Mother Dairy separated from Amul, the brand name the two had nurtured. Both are doing well -- so are the MNCs.
This underscores the tussle between the urban India and the farming Bharat -- and not only in dairying. The unease in their co-existence is palpable.
It is indeed surprising that not just the MNCs, even the domestic entrepreneurs engaged in diverse activities like telecommunications and petrochemicals are entering India's retail field for perishables.
The producers of fruits, vegetables and cereals have failed to unite and form their cooperative retail outlets just as Amul did in the dairy sector. This would be more profitable and economical for both the producers and the consumers.
Perhaps, they need to find their own Verghese Kurien.
A US-trained metallurgist from distant Kerala, Kurien arrived in Gujarat in 1949. How he fought the feudal, business and MNC interests and motivated farmers ignorant of their strength is a saga that stretches from the dawn of India's independence to the present.
Thanks to Kurien, India is the world's largest milk producer. But its reach among the poor is limited. Milk remains the staple nutrient in a largely vegetarian India. But the MNCs, their subsidiaries and a government that supports them, are the new "vested interests".
They are complemented by studied ignorance. Chief ministers wink at malnutrition among the people. Chief Minister Narendra Modi of Gujarat, where Kurien worked for half a century, recently told Washington Post that women shun milk as they have become figure-conscious.
Kurien and his team were pioneers in inventing the process of making milk powder and condensed milk from buffalo's milk instead of cow's milk. Amul successfully competed against Nestle, the MNC that only used cow's milk to make powder and condensed milk. In India, buffalo's milk is the main raw material unlike Europe where cow's milk is abundant.
Opening the first Amul "factory" in Anand, first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru hugged Kurien for his groundbreaking work. Kurien successfully networked with successive governments to push his projects. A hard taskmaster, he could be blunt. He was ruthless if and when things did not work his way.
He replicated the Anand model throughout India as Operation Flood. Today, over 10 million farmers at 200 dairies produce more than 20 million litres of milk daily.
Come to think of it, Kurien's cooperative venture was the first real success in the socialist era with controls -- long before economic reforms and information technology and telecom happened to India.
To tell the story to the world of India's White Revolution, Kurien co-wrote and financed a feature film, Manthan (Churning), in 1976. directed by Shyam Benegal, it won both critical acclaim and money.
Amul is the first cooperative sector product, perhaps a global first, to be advertised on modern lines. The success of the "utterly, butterly delicious Amul" line remains the envy of the India Inc and the MNCs.
Amul has spelt both health and humour for half a century now. It has not only served Indians delicious butter but also taught them to be witty and laugh at themselves.
The little moppet in a red polka-dot dress and a blue ponytail has delivered on a regular basis a humorous take on everything that bothers Indians, everything that deserves a repartee.
Since its birth in the 1960s, this ad campaign, a brainchild of Sylvester daCunha of Mumbai's daCunha Communications, has remained an icon in the advertising world, surviving odds of the trade and yet being steadfastly consistent.
Like a true spokesperson of the masses, she rises to every occasion, be it a cricketing double century, scandals surrounding politicians, to controversial diplomatic policies, with an infallible gut and tongue-in-cheek attitude. In the process, Brand Amul has become synonymous with honesty, purity and subtlety.
As its advertiser, Kurien never pre-viewed them.
For all his passion for producing and selling milk, "India's milkman", as he liked being called, recently made an intriguing, but honest confession: "I don't drink milk. I don't like it."
Three days before he died, IT entrepreneur N.R. Narayana Murthy sought India's highest civilian award for Kurien.
"A civilised society must show gratitude when people can sense it, or it is no gratitude at all. If our country does not stand and salute Verghese Kurien with a Bharat Ratna, I don't know who else deserves it."
Kurien will likely be conferred that award, now posthumously, on the next Republic Day. But his real award would be delivering milk to millions of poor mothers and children.