Remembering India’s milkman: Verghese Kurien

As we celebrate the birth centenary of India’s legendary milkman Verghese Kurien, born on Nov 26, 1921, the mind goes back to the two delightfully long interviews I did with him in 1998 and 1999 at his office at the Amul headquarters in Anand, Gujarat, for The Hindu Businessline, where I was working then. I was dazzled by his sparkling wit and great sense of humour, his passion and zeal, and the ability to brush off the power he wielded as the undisputed milkman of India, who first took on the Parsi Polson and then multinationals like Nestlé.


But the man who could be extremely rude to politicians and bureaucrats — his pet peeve was the IAS tribe, and he fought tooth and nail for long years to prevent an IAS officer succeeding him as NDDB (National Dairy Development Board) chairman — was extremely gentle, friendly and accessible to farmers.

My interview in 1998 was held just after he had won a long-drawn battle with the GoI over his successor at Amul… but more of that later. As we chatted, he allowed into his room a large group of farmers, with a polite “I hope you don’t mind; they have come from a long distance to greet me and they will have to return to their villages today itself.” To these farmers from a milk cooperative, he was nothing less than god; after trying to touch his feet, they crowned him with a colourful headgear, gave him an ornamental sword, and me a perfect photo opportunity.

His greatest fear was that the babus were just waiting to get control over the NDDB, which was sitting on a neat pile of money… the figure given by him then was ₹300 crore.

In total admiration, I watched him bantering with them for around 10 minutes, after which he returned to the interview, picking up the thread effortlessly. And he was already 76 then! In my mind, I added a razor-sharp brain to his gentle, generous heart. Those who knew him or worked with him will recall his sharp wit and sharper quips, of course, but also his generosity of spirit and impeccable integrity.

He loved telling the story of his life and I met him when he’d “just lost” his job! He related how he found his stint in TISCO (now Tata Steel) — “where I was the best apprentice Tata had in many years” — stifling “after they found out that my uncle (John Mathai) was the big boss there. I told my uncle I had to leave; if I go to the club all the pretty girls come to me. My supervisor keeps asking me if I am free for dinner!”

So he left, on a GoI scholarship, to study dairy engineering in Pittsburgh. Was it easy to get the scholarship, I asked him. His response had me in splits!

“Oh yes; the Chief Justice of India was the chairman of the selection committee, and asked me, ‘What is pasteurisation?’ I said ‘something to do with milk’. He said: ‘Right, you are selected’. This was because no other engineer knew what pasteurisation was, and there was then no pasteurisation plant in India. I said: ‘Please, can’t you give me something like metallurgy?’ But he said, ‘this or nothing else’.”


But Kurien had his “revenge, and cheated the GoI by doing my Masters in metallurgy and nuclear physics. By that time, one of the underground explosions had taken place and my ambition was to become a nuclear engineer.” But fate had other plans for him; “luckily for Dr Abdul Kalam, the undersecretary didn’t like my green hat and yellow trousers and packed me off to a dump called Anand, near Bombay, as a Class I gazetted officer on ₹350 salary, to see cows!” His protest that he was getting double in TISCO came to nought; he was under contract.

Here are the facts — shorn of Kurien’s quips and wisecracks. The US-educated engineer found the Gandhian Tribhuvandas Patel struggling to run a decrepit dairy against an established MNC player. Finding this a challenge he couldn’t resist, Kurien helped him stablise that dairy, gradually building in the processed milk cooperatives and empowering the lowly milk farmers.

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, impressed by the Amul model, requested him to replicate it across India. The young Kurien dictated his own terms to the PM — the headquarters of the proposed Dairy Board will be in Anand, away from bureaucratic interference of Delhi. The terms were accepted! The rest is history!


Contempt for babus

Kurien fought a long and hard battle with the GoI to ensure that his successor at the NDDB was not an IAS officer, as his greatest fear was that the babus were just waiting to get control over the NDDB, which was sitting on a neat pile of money… the figure given by him then was ₹300 crore. When I met him, his protégé, Amrita Patel, had been named his successor, and he was pleased as punch.

The man who could be extremely rude to politicians and bureaucrats, was extremely gentle, friendly and accessible to farmers.

Otherwise, he said, “supposing, as I am talking to you, I drop dead, the secretary (of the department) will go to the minister and say: ‘I have bad news, Kurien is dead. I have prepared a telegram but, meanwhile, I will hold additional charge.’ That will be the beginning of the end; the invasion of the IAS.”

The babus returned the compliment, hated his guts and were full of tales about how Kurien held GoI to ransom. A former commerce secretary once told me a story about how King Birendra of Nepal had requested the GoI for a few tonnes of ghee. “Even though it was a government-to-government request, bureaucrats in Delhi had to move heaven and earth to get the permission of the Ghee Czar of India to send the consignment,” he had frowned!

Kurien’s take, of course, was that he had zealously guarded the cooperative movement and the milk bodies, “that rightly belong to the Indian dairy farmers”, from being hijacked by the babus. So allergic was he to this fraternity that he refused to release funds from the NDDB to the Kerala Federation “because it is headed by an IAS officer.”

I had interviewed him in the first week of December after Amrita Patel had been appointed his successor; he had been NDDB chairman for 33 years. He received me cheerfully and said: “I have all the time in the world; you see I’ve just lost my job.” In the next breath, he added: “Every time I open my mouth, I land in trouble, but that’s okay!”

My first question was on the battle he had just won; with a guffaw Kurien replied, “If the Government of India had, in its wisdom, chosen an IAS officer to succeed me, do you think he would have been allowed to step into the Amul campus? The Patels would have said we have a Patel (Amrita, the daughter of former Finance Minister H M Patel) and we want Patel raj. The chairman of Amul came to me and said: ‘Sala kaun hei woh IAS officer? Hum log usko dekh lege! (Who the hell is that IAS officer; we will take care of him.)’ I told them all this is not required, that would be the last resort.”

Luckily for Dr Abdul Kalam, the undersecretary didn’t like my green hat and yellow trousers and packed me off to a dump called Anand as a Class I gazetted officer on ₹350 salary, to see cows.

He was all praise for Amrita’s management capability, competence and integrity, which was of utmost importance; “you see we have a lot of money, and money attracts thieves,” he said.

I did interview her later the same day, and she was very respectful while talking about her mentor, but made it clear, even then, that her managerial style was very different from Kurien’s. Perhaps, that was the reason the two of them started sparring after a while, sometimes very publicly.

Unfortunately, there was a shadow over Kurien’s later years; we all know that the best of top honchos overstay their welcome in institutions they have founded and nurtured, as Kurien did with Amul and the NDDB. When he was asked to step down in 2006 as the chairman of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, on grounds of “no confidence” his heartbreaking comment was: “Do I deserve this kind of treatment?” He passed away in 2012.

But what nobody can take away from him is what he did to the Indian farmer. In his darkest hours and when he was under attack, he said he had always got his “strength and support from the Indian farmer. It has been my good fortune to work with, and for, the Indian farmer,” he said.

Revolutionising the way milk is procured and marketed in India, getting those who produce this precious commodity their due, and succeeding against all odds will always remain Kurien’s legacy.

Can you believe that milk was a scarce commodity in Bombay in 1970? The next time you step into an Indian supermarket and look at the variety of milk and milk products on offer, do send up a cheerful ‘hello’ to the centenarian in heaven. He will surely wave back!

Flying buffaloes to Thailand

Kurien’s story-narrating skills were phenomenal. And he related the craziest of stories with a deadpan expression. Around the time I met him, there was a lot of buzz around NDDB’s plan to gift 50 buffaloes to the king of Thailand to commemorate 50 years of his reign. Naturally the newspapers were full of speculation over how they would be transported to Thailand. Would Kurien’s successor, Amrita Patel, really accompany the buffaloes dressed in the colourful garb of a bharwad (shepherdess), as was being written, I asked her. She demurred and said: “Yes, Dr Kurien said he would give me a lot of silver jewellery to wear which I could keep. So I agreed.”

On the mode of transport, she had first decided to ship them, but couldn’t find a ship. So she called the Air India MD to charter a flight and he said: “My god, you’re flying buffaloes! They will cost a hell of a lot”. But as Kurien had made the commitment, there was no other option.

Added Kurien with a straight face: “I suppose you know they travel only first class? Air India is worried about the smell in the aircraft, but they don’t know we won’t be feeding them much or giving them anything to drink, and will sedate them. Otherwise, if two of them start fighting, they can wreck the plane.”

When I commented on the price tag, he said: “I hope you know the profits of the Board. After hiding ₹50 crore, it is ₹117 crore. And I don’t pay any tax. It is under the Act. Of course, I wrote the Act.”

Kurien quotes

Meeting the King of Thailand: When the king said he wanted to meet me, the Indian ambassador to Thailand said, ‘Many of our visiting ministers ask for an appointment with the king and I have never succeeded in getting one. So what is so special about you?’ So I said: ‘Cows! What else?’

Ticking off an MNC chief on NDDB JV with Sri Lanka: I told him I don’t go to Delhi to meet an MNC chief; I go there to do my work. So he came here and said, ‘What will happen to us?’ I said that doesn’t concern me. It is about time the white man understood that all Indians are not for sale. There will be a few who cannot be bought and they will defend India’s business interest.

Helping Pakistan improve its milk yield: They wanted to become self-sufficient. I said, ‘You have liberalised, globalised and eaten up all your cows. You have no brains. I am a Christian and don’t have any sentiment for the cow, but I will not agree to good cows being eaten up.’

Amrita Patel’s best qualification to be NDDB chairman: The best qualification madam, is to be groomed by Dr Kurien.

Farmers: The farmer has no bargaining power; he has to sell milk at whatever price is given. That is why the cooperative model… command over procurement, processing and marketing of his produce, is the only solution. The dairy should belong to him. That is why Sardar Patel said: ‘Polson ne kaadhi muko’ (Throw out Polson).

Exporting milk to Pakistan: Why not? If I can send milk from Delhi to Calcutta, Can’t I send it from Delhi to Lahore. All that is required is to bribe one guard!

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