Tribute to Dr. Verghese Kurien, Last of India’s Nation Builders

Amul’s Tribute (of course)

I spent the better part of my Sunday time skimming through tribute messages on Twitter, Facebook shares and reading what the mainstream media had to write about Dr. Verghese Kurien – the last of India’s nation builders (Hat tip to @shilpaanand for that highly apt moniker.)

As my personal tribute to Dr. Kurien, I’ve curated a set of tweets, images and articles that have truly done justice to his legacy.

[Sep 22 update: the best feature came from Economic Times – VRemembering Verghese Kurien.]

[Sep 24 update: the second-best feature came from Tushaar Shah – Verghese Kurien’s obituary.]

Hindustan Times wrote the best third-best feature – Verghese Kurien, Amul man who empowered and enriched farmers. Two beautiful pictures, an accurate and endearing biography – partially excerpted below with a quote from the current GCMMF chairman.

He made the ordinary, neighbourhood ‘doodhwala’ (milkman) a key player in the country’s struggle for economic development and progress at the grassroot level.

Arriving in Anand on a hot May 13 in 1949, Kurien was a harried man, only waiting to be released from his bond and leave the place as quickly as possible.

He got his release orders after six months and was all set to pack up and go to the city of big bucks, Bombay (now, Mumbai) – but a minor incident halted him in his tracks.

Just as he was preparing his exit, Tribhuvandas Patel, the then chairman of Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers Union, popularly known as ‘Amul’, with whom Kurien had developed a good friendship, requested him to stay back in Anand for some more time and help him organise his co-operative society’s dairy equipment.

Kurien stayed back for a few more days…going on to become a legend through Operation Flood, launched in 1971.

“His forced tenure at Anand changed the destiny of the entire Indian dairy sector. He help the fledgling dairy co-operative movement and was forced to stay there to see it flourish. The rest is history,” Sodhi said.

The article from Economic Times comes second – Verghese Kurien, the milkman dies today after prolonged illness. Nothing noteworthy about the pieces from TOI and India Today. DNA keeps it brief but manages to catch one of Kurien’s ironies – Interestingly, the ‘milkman’ of India did not consume milk himself. He used to say, “I do not drink milk as I don’t like it.”

The Hindu Businessline, perhaps in a hurry to get the piece out, makes a few stupid errors. The writer has clearly not done his homework (as in reading Dr. Kurien’s memoirs). He writes about some ‘legend’ about Sardar Patel sending Kurien to Anand with ‘Don’t return until you’ve solved their problems’. He also refers to Sardar Patel as Kurien’s mentor. In reality, Kurien’s mentor is Tribhuvandas – a wealthy farmer who took up the cause of the Kaira district farmers much before Kurien even came to Anand – a widely known fact and acknowledged multiple times in his memoirs.

[Sep 10 Update: The Man who revolutionized white – this feature provides redemption to the Hindu brand.]

[Sep 12 Update: Life and times of Verghese Kurien (by R.P. Aneja) and India’s Accidental Dairy King (by Manu Joseph.]

[Sep 22 Update: Verghese Kurien’s obituary in Economic Times.]

And now for the fun tweets from Twitter.

Just after I hit the publish button, I came across this beautiful personal tribute from Forbes India’s Mitu Jayashankar.

The (updated) Verghese Kurien wikipedia page is of course chock full of information including the complete list of awards he won during his nearly seven decades of service to India.

 

When Margaret Alva called Verghese Kurien an MCP

[Editor’s Note: In Verghese Kurien’s autobiography (I too had a dream), he recounts his first encounter with Margaret Alva in 1984, when she accompanied the Queen of Netherlands. The Queen wished to visit Anand, meet Kurien and find out the truth behind the torrent of accusations that were being thrown at NDDB and him — in the wake of a series of anti-Operation Flood publications.]

Margaret Alva (recently sworn in as Rajasthan Governor) – Pic courtesy wikipedia.org

When a head of state travels to our country the government generally attaches a minister to the visiting dignitary. In this case, as the dignitary was a woman, Margaret Alva escorted the Queen. I had never met Margaret Alva before. As our meeting commenced, she came and sat next to me on the Indian side of the table, as it were. The Queen of Netherlands began her cross-examination. Clearly, she had done her homework well and grilled me for a long time. At the end of it, when she was finally satisfied that she had left no questions unanswered, the Queen said, ‘Dr. Kurien, you have convinced me. Now I know what you are planning to do. My worries and the worries of the people in my country are certainly not justified and from now on we will be your strong supporters. In fact, Dr. Kurien, when you next come to Europe, do come and visit us and I will arrange for you to come and speak at the Institute of Social Studies.’

When the Queen of Netherlands said this, Margaret Alva suddenly piped up and said, ‘Your majesty, whatever you might think of him, I think Dr. Kurien is an MCP!’

I was astounded. This was the first time ever that we had met and she was accusing me of being a male chauvinist pig. I looked at her questioningly. Then she said, ‘ Please allow me to explain. Do you see the crest of the NDDB? It is a bull. It should, in fact, have been a cow. After all, NDDB is about dairy development. Doesn’t that prove my point?’

I thought this was getting a bit out of hand and the time had come to say something in my defence so I looked at the honourable Minister and said, ‘Madam, no bull, no milk.’ The Queen burst out laughing. Margaret Alva was dumbfounded. She knew she could say nothing more. But after this incident we became good friends.

 

Kurien and Golwalkar’s Friendship and RSS Supremo’s real reason for cow protection movement

Dr. Verghese Kurien (Pic courtesy: iLoveIndia.com)

[Editor’s Note: In light of the Madhya Pradesh (BJP) government’s ban on consumption of beef,  it’s relevant for us to understand RSS’s original reasons for evangelizing the cow protection movement in the 1960’s. Verghese Kurien’s autobiography (I too had a dream) casts unique light on this subject, through a burgeoning friendship that developed between Kurien and Golwalkar during their 12-year association on the committee.]

In 1967, as Chairman of NDDB, I was asked to be a member of a high-powered committee, set up by the Government of India, to look into cow protection. It was a collection of rather individualistic and interesting personages. Justice Sarkar, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was appointed its Chairman. Among the other members of this committee were Ashok Mitra, who was then Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission, the Shankaracharya of Puri, H.A.B. Parpia, Director of the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore and M.S. Golwalkar ‘Guruji’, the head of the RSS, the organization which had launched the entire cow protection movement.

Incredible as it might seem, this committee met regularly for twelve years. We interviewed scores of experts from all fields to get opinions of all shades on cow slaughter. It was a tedious and time-consuming process. My brief was to prevent any ban on cow slaughter. It was important for us in the dairy business to keep weeding out the unhealthy cows so that available resources could be utilized for healthy and productive cattle. I was prepared to go as far as to allow that no useful cow should be killed. This was the point on which the Shankaracharya and I invariably locked horns and got into heated arguments. I constantly asked him, ‘Your Holiness, are you going to take all the useless cows which are not producing anything and look after them and feed them till they die? You know that cannot work.’ He never had any answer to my query.

For twelve years the Government of India paid the committee members to travel to Delhi and attend the meetings. We continued like this and it was only when Morarji Desai became Prime Minister that I received a little slip of paper, which said, ‘The cow protection committee is hereby abolished.’ We were never even asked to submit a report.

Shri Golwalkar Guruji, RSS's 2nd Sarasanghachalak (Pic courtesy: golwalkarguruji.org)

However, one rather unusual and unexpected development during our regular committee meetings was that during that time, Golwalkar and I became close friends. People were absolutely amazed to see that we had become so close that whenever he saw me walk into the room he would rush to embrace me. He would take me aside and try to pacify me after our meetings, ‘Why do you keep losing your temper with the Shankaracharya? I agree with you about him. But don’t let the man rile you. Just ignore him.’

Golwalkar was a very small man — barely five feet — but when he got angry fire spewed out of his eyes. What impressed me most about him was that he was an intensely patriotic Indian. You could argue that he was going about preaching his brand of nationalism in a totally wrong way but nobody could question his sincerity. One day after one of our meetings when he had argued passionately for banning cow slaughter, he came to me and asked, ‘Kurien, shall I tell you why I’m making an issue of this cow slaughter business?’

I said to him, ‘Yes, please explain to me because otherwise you are a very intelligent man. Why are you doing this?’

‘I started a petition to ban cow slaughter actually to embarrass the government,’ he began explaining to me in private. ‘I decided to collect a million signatures for this to submit to the Rashtrapati. In connection with this work I travelled across the country to see how the campaign was progressing. My travels once took me to a village in UP. There I saw in one house, a woman, who having fed and sent off her husband to work and her two children to school, took this petition and went from house to house to collect signatures in that blazing summer sun. I wondered to myself why this woman should take such pains. She was not crazy to be doing this. This is when I realized that the woman was actually doing it for her cow, which was her bread and butter, and I realized how much potential the cow has.

‘Look at what our country has become. What is good is foreign: what is bad is Indian. Who is a good Indian? It’s the fellow who wears a suit and a tie and puts on a hat. Who is a bad Indian? The fellow who wears a dhoti. If this nation does not take pride in what it is and merely imitates other nations, how can it amount to anything? Then I saw that the cow has potential to unify the country – she symbolizes the culture of Bharat. So I tell you what, Kurien, you agree with me to ban cow slaughter on this committee and I promise you, five years from that date, I will have united the country. What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m not a fool, I’m not a fanatic. I’m just cold-blooded about this. I want to use the cow to bring out our Indianness, So please cooperate with me on this.’

Of course neither did I concur with him on this nor did I support his argument for banning cow slaughter on the committee. However, I was convinced that in his own way he was trying to instil a pride across our country about our being Indian. This side of his personality greatly appealed to me. That was the Golwalkar I knew. They had accused him of plotting the murder of Mahatma Gandhi but somehow I could never believe it. To me he came across as an honest and outspoken man and I always thought that if he were the Hindu fanatic that he was made out to be, he would never have been my friend.

Verghese Kurien’s answer to Lal Bahadur Shastri and the genesis for NDDB

This story (from Verghese Kurien’s I too had a dream) continues from Why Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted to spend a night in a Kaira district village.

I assured the Prime Minister that all his observations were absolutely correct but that there was one difference, which he had failed to notice. The solitary difference was that Amul dairy was owned by the farmers themselves. The elected representatives from among the farmers managed it. These elected representatives had employed me as a professional manager to run their dairy. I was an employee of the farmers.

In this dairy that was owned by the farmers, therefore, my job as a Manager was to satisfy the farmers who supplied milk to the dairy. I had to provide the infrastructure to the farmers to help them increase production. I had to ensure increased production so that they benefited. I could never refuse to collect the milk they supplied. This was a dairy that was sensitive to the needs of farmers and responsive to their demands. I explained to the Prime Minister that just as in Anand, in all advanced dairying countries, the dairies were owned by farmers. I pointed out to Shastriji that all we had done at Anand was to prove that what was true for New Zealand, Denmark, Holland and even the US, was also true for India.

They employed me, a professional who, in their judgement, was capable and honest. They were satisfied with my trustworthiness, competence and honesty. They left me free to run the cooperative as I thought best. What is more, they had protected and supported me during the initial stages until I found my feet and did not allow anyone to interfere with my work.

The Cooperative Societies Act of India is a stagnant act. It does not encourage the creation of truly democratic institutions. It is nothing but an appendage of the cooperative department of the government. But the Kaira Cooperative – Amul – in spite of such an act was a true and functioning cooperative because of the efforts of its Chairman, Tribhuvandas Patel, who was selected by Sardar Patel, and the farmers had complete trust in him. I explained all this, at great length, to our Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister, who had been listening to me avidly, looked excited and said, ‘Kurien, this means that we can have many Anands. There are no special reasons to have an Anand only in Gujarat.’

I nodded my head in agreement.

‘So then, Kurien,’ he continued, ‘from tomorrow you shall make it your business to work not just for Anand, not just for Gujarat, but for the whole of India. The Government of India will give you a blank cheque, it will create any body, any structure you want, provided you head it. Please replicate Anand throughout India. Make that your mission and whatever you need for it, the government will provide.’

I heard him out and then told him that before I could agree to his request, I had certain conditions. The first was that I would remain an employee of farmers. I would not be an employee of the government. I would not accept a single paisa from the government. When Shastriji wanted to know the reason for the condition I told him that an employee of the government inevitably has to please his superiors; an employee of farmers has to please only the farmers.

My second condition was that the new body, responsible for replicating Anand throughout the country, should not be located in Delhi. ‘People in Delhi think about many things but they hardly ever think about farmers,’ I reasoned. ‘In Anand, we think of nothing else other than farmers, agriculture and dairying. We have no other interests. So whatever body the government creates must be located at Anand. I refuse to move to Delhi.’

The Prime Minister agreed to both these conditions.

Why Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted to spend a night in a Kaira district village

This story (from Verghese Kurien’s I too had a dream) continues from When an Indian Prime Minister spent a night in a village..unannounced..in 1964.

He visited the huts of Harijans in the village. He sat with them and talked to them. He visited the Muslim families in the village. Till two o’clock in the morning, he was busy talking to the farmers and their families about their lives and their problems. The Home Secretary had to remind him about his next day’s programme, which was to begin at seven a.m. He was forced to retire for the night.

The next morning the Prime Minister visited the village milk cooperative society run by the elected representatives of the village. I met him there for the first time and explained to him the working of the cooperative. Only after this did he come to Anand and to my house. Later, he declared open the cattle-feed compounding factory and addressed the gathering with an inspiring speech. Then we returned to my house.

At home, he sat me down and told me something extremely interesting. He said, ‘Under the Second and Third Five Year Plans, we have built so many dairies. All of them owned and run by the government. All of them were unmitigated disasters, running at a loss. But I heard Amul dairy and its products are liked throughout the country. It’s available throughout the country and has an extremely high growth rate every year. I want to know why this particular dairy is a success when all the others have failed That is why I decided that I would stay here and find out. And that is why I spent a night with the villagers, trying to fathom the reasons for the success of Anand’s Amul dairy. But I am sorry to say, Kurien, that I have failed.

‘I looked at the soil. Good soil, but not as good as the Indo-Gangetic plains. I asked about the climate here. Cold in winter, very hot in summer, I was told. So it is in most of India. Nothing special. I enquired about the rainfall. Thirty inches of rain for three months of the year during the monsoon – much like the rest of the country. I had expected to see the entire landscape green, with cattle grazing contentedly, but the whole place is brown, just like the rest of India. I did not find any abundant availability of fodder and feed here. I looked at your buffaloes and don’t mind my saying this, Kurien, but they are not as good as the buffaloes in my home state of Uttar Pradesh. Those buffaloes are certainly better and even give more milk. Lastly, I looked at your farmers. They’re good people – farmers are always good people – but they are not as hardworking as the farmers of Punjab. I can’t find a single reason why Anand is such a great success. Now, can you please tell me what is the secret of its success?

… to be continued.. [In Part 3, Verghese Kurien’s answer and the genesis for NDDB.]

When an Indian Prime Minister spent a night in a village.. unannounced.. in 1964

There’s no better way to relate this story than to transcribe the relevant pages from Verghese Kurian’s I too had a dream.

In 1964 the Kaira Union’s new cattle-feed compounding factory sponsored by Oxfam was ready at Kanjari, approximately eight kilometers from Anand. This was a revolutionary step for the dairy industry of the country. We thought that such a plant should be inaugurated by the nation’s Prime Minister. We invited the Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, to come to Anand and officially commission the plant. The occasion was to be Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary, 31 October. Shastriji accepted our invitation.

Shastriji’s demand proved to be even more complex. He made an unusual request to modify the programme we had prepared for him, sending many of us into a bit of a tailspin. He sent word to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Balwantrai Mehta, that he would like to come a day earlier and spend a night in a village as the guest of a farmer — preferably a small farmer in Kaira district.

As far as I knew, no Indian prime minister had ever asked to stay in a village, so naturally this unusual request caused some consternation. The Chief Minister asked me to help them arrange this stay. I told him that if India’s Prime Minister went to a village, at least three hundred policemen would be dispatched to that village even before he arrived. Most villages in Kaira district had an average population of around three hundred and with such a strong concentration of policemen the village would resemble a police camp. Why would the Prime Minister want to go to a village to see a police camp? However, if the Prime Minister really wanted to see a village in its normal and natural condition, the Chief Minister would have to entrust the Prime Minister’s security to me.

Balwantrai Mehta sent for F.H. Heredia, the Home Secretary, Gujarat, and informed him of my suggestion. Heredia was not at all convinced. “This will not do,” he said. “If something goes wrong, it’s my neck on the line and not Kurien’s. I’m sorry I cannot agree to this. The security of the Prime Minister is my business and I will not delegate it to anyone.” But he did understand the point I was trying to make and since we were friends he promised to arrange it in a way that would meet his needs as well as mine.

“How will you manage it when Kurien insists that there should be no policemen and you say there have to be policemen?” the Chief Minister asked him.

“It’s quite simple,” explained the Home Secretary. “No one — simply no one — should know that the Prime Minister is going to the village or which village he is visiting. The the Prime Minister would be safe.”

This seemed to make sense. Secrecy was to be the basis of our security arrangements.

“In that case, you and Kurien arrange everything,” Balwantrai Mehta agreed.

Heredia and I met. We picked Ajarpura, a village a few kilometers from Anand. Ajarpura had one of the oldest registered milk cooperatives in the district. I had also identified the farmer — Ramanbhai Punjabhai Patel — and explained to him that two foreigners were visiting us; since they wished to spend a night at the village, could he arrange for their stay? Ramanbhai was perplexed as to why these foreigners would want to do that. I convinced him that these foreigners were a bit quirky and asked him if it would matter if they stayed in his house for one night. I asked him not to do anything special except tidy up a bit and clean up the bathroom. He agreed.

On the day of the Prime Minister’s visit, at about five-thirty p.m. the guard of honour was kept ready and all the official arrangements were made to receive him at my house in Anand. The ministers, too, had arrived. At this stage, I called the Collector and handed him a sealed envelope.

“What’s this?” the Collector asked in surprise.

“It’s merely a letter signed by the Home Secretary which says that there’s a slight change in the Prime Minister’s programme and you will now take instructions from me,” I told him.

The Collector and I then drove to the village. Ramanbhai, after sprucing up his hut and sprinkling water to keep the dust down, was waiting for his two ‘foreign guests’ to arrive. I went to him and said, “Now you should know who your two guests really are. They are the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat.” “The Pradhan Mantri in my house? What have you done to me, Saheb?” exclaimed Ramanbhai in anguish.

“Nothing,” I said, trying to calm him. “Believe me, they’re good people. Just as good as you and I. You treat them as you would treat any guest of yours.”

“Saheb,” he said, “I have not cooked anything special. You told me not to.”

I assured him that they did not want anything special. I introduced him to the Collector, the head of his district, and then I said to the two of them, “I leave the Prime Minister to both of you. You look after him now and I’m going home.”

I explained to them that Shastriji had no fixed programme. He would come here and decide what he wanted to do while he was a guest of the village. I told them that I had to return home because my wife was there, coping alone with all the other guests who had no idea that the Prime Minister would not be arriving that day.

According to the plan, as the Prime Minister’s convoy drove from Ahmedabad to Anand, the Prime Minister’s car alone was diverted to Ajarpura village while the rest of the convoy proceeded to Anand.

… the story continues in Part 2 – Why Lal Bahadur Shastri wanted to spend a night in a Kaira district village.

Verghese Kurien On a Roll

I’m reading Verghese Kurian’s autobiography I too had a dream – an authentic account of his life’s work, as told to Gauri Salvi. The following excerpt from the chapter On a Roll might persuade you to go buy the book.

There is nothing wrong in building flyovers in Delhi. What is not fair is when we do not also build an approach road to villages across the nation. There is nothing wrong in having fountains with coloured lights in the capital. After all, Delhi should be beautiful. But it is unjustified when we have not provided drinking water to all our villages. There is nothing wrong in having a modern, private hospital in Bombay, or the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, or other large medical institutions in our big cities. But it is not justified when we have not arranged to have two drops of a medicine put into the eyes of a farmer’s newborn baby, and that baby goes blind. While this would have cost us nothing, we have preferred to spend crores of rupees in building five-star hospitals in cities. Why does this happen? Because policy-making is in our hands — in the hands of the elite — and naturally, even unconsciously perhaps, when we make policies we make policies that suit us; we usurp the resources of this land somewhat shamelessly to benefit ourselves. The most charitable interpretation of it is that we do it unconsciously.

I opted to remain an employee of farmers all my life, not because I could not get a job in the city of Bombay or any other city anywhere else. It was only because I felt that I had the best job that I could ever get. Nor did I do it out of any great nobility of character — I did it because I realized I had a job which gave me the greatest pleasure, the greatest satisfaction. The idea of working for a large number of farmers translated itself into a concept of working for social good. I soon realized that money is not the only satisfaction that one can seek, that there are several other forms of satisfaction and all of these were available to me at Anand.