Monday, October 22, 2012

Book: I Too Had a Dream by Verghese Kurien

This is the story of one of India's most illustrious sons. Verghese Kurien, who passed away last month, is widely known as the Father of White Revolution. As most people in our country, I too had always heard of this man being referred to as the Milkman of India and so on, but never really had a clear idea about what exactly he did that prompted such exalted status. That was till I read this book.

The book, the autobiography of Mr Kurien as told to Gouri Salvi, wonderfully captures the life and achievements of a man who dedicated himself to the service of the farmers of our country. Born in a prominent family in Kerala, Kurien completed his early education in Kerala and Madras before embarking on higher studies in the US. What starts as an obligatory stint in the government service for Kurien in return of the sponsorship of his foreign education, ends up as a lifelong involvement for him with the dairy farmers of Gujarat.

Talking about the circumstances that led to his involvement with the dairy farmers of Kaira district in Gujarat, Kurien recalls the influence of Tribhuvandas Patel. Recalling how he was convinced to stay back and contribute with his professional skills to operate and manage the dairy for the farmers,  Kurien says- " I saw that when you work merely for your own profit, the pleasure is transitory; but if you work for others, there is a deeper sense of fulfilment and if things are handled well, the money, too, is more than adequate."

In the book Kurien often talks of combining the power of the farmers with professional management. He talks about building 'true foundation for better sharing, fuller cooperation'. After successfully building brand Amul for the farmers of Kaira at Anand, Kurien is approached by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The PM wnats him to replicate the model through the other parts of the country. That is the project we often hear being referred to as the Operation Flood.

Kurien says he opted to remain an employee of farmers all his life because he felt that he had the best job that he could ever get. The idea of working for a large number of farmers eventually for him translates itself into the concept of working for social good. In his career Kurien demonstrates a keen business sense too, that results in a better bargain for his masters - the farmers. 

In the late 1960s, when there is a glut of milk products in the developed world, Kurien and others at the NDDB come up with a program to utilise the surplus commodities from Europe to generate funds required to finance the Rs 650 crore for Operation Flood. He says- " In every crisis, if you look carefully, you will spot an opportunity. My insistence on finding and seizing that opportunity has often been a source of annoyance for many of my colleagues becausse it means that unlike most people, I never try to sidestep a crisis. Rather, the more monstrous the crisis, the more I am tempted to rush at it, grasp it by the horns and manoeuvre it until it gives me what I want!"

His confrontations with the bureaucrats are numerous. Just as there are those bureaucrats who obstruct and delay, there are also those who see the merit in his proposals and go out of their way to help him. When he sends the  proposal to the government in Delhi explaining how Anand could be replicated in the rest of the country, the proposal initially gathers dust in the office of an officer at the Planning Commission. Only after Kurien speaks to the then Home Secretary about it, the proposal moves forward. The project eventually resulted in the creation of a huge cooperative structure to involve more than a crore of dairy farmers. The farmers getting to be members of cooperatives, cooperative unions and federations, and owning dairy plants!

This book came out in 2005 and interestingly in 2006 Mr Kurien was forced to resign from the chairmanship of NDDB (National Dairy Development Board) that he had founded and remained the chairman of for three decades! In the chapter named "Post Script" in this book, Kurien talks about the shift in NDDB's policies. He doesnt apporve of NDDB's decision to register a company called Mother Dairy Fruits and Vegetable Private Ltd. He objects to the decision to corporatize the NDDB and to float a company to compete with the dairy cooperatives. He writes - "I have fought against the efforts to undermine the interests of our farmers by vested interests - be they those of unscrupulous politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen or institutions - for all my life, and I will continue to do so unless someone shows me a better way of serving our nation's producers to become productive members of our society."

Kurien's dream clearly, as underscored throughout the book, was to see that the farmers of India had a level playing field to compete with other forms of businesses. He laid his trust on the power of cooperatives to enable the farmers to achieve that. He regretted the fact that not all cooperatives were run as genuine cooperatives, like Amul, and also that they were not given a level playing field.

Rest in peace, Mr Kurien!

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