The book is an autobiography of Dr Verghese Kurien (1921-2012), an Indian social entrepreneur credited to be the ‘Father of the Milk Revolution in India’ and fondly known as the ‘Milkman of India’.
My brother, an alumnus of the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA)[i], kept talking about this book on and on till I finally grabbed his copy and set sail on a journey that kept my throat choked all through. I wouldn’t say I’ve never read a better book, but this was special in its own way. Among many other things, it reminded me of my grandfather, making it an emotional and an intellectually stimulating read, to say the least.
The book starts with a passage from The Ulysses and I must quote two lines that aptly describe the essence of what is in store for the reader:
“Some work of noble note, may yet be done.
…Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
The ten chapters in the book take the reader through an effort, a dream, more effort, patience, perseverance and subsequently the realization of the dream into the form of liberated farmers receiving what is due to them.
Fate threw Dr Verghese Kurien in Anand, a sleepy town in Gujarat, where he was compelled to carry on the work he was assigned by the Government in return for the benefit that he had taken from a scholarship programme of the Government of India which sponsored him for a course in dairy engineering at the Michigan State University. He was a novice in the field of dairy industry but step by step his life got consumed supporting the cause of the farmers as a protégé of Tribhuvandas Patel, a young and committed freedom fighter and the elected Vice President of the Kaira (now Kheda) District Congress Committee, who in turn had the support of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
With sheer dedication and hard work the farmers of Anand, supported and lead by Dr Kurien, the architect of what came to be known as the ‘Anand Pattern’ gradually turned India from a milk importer to the largest milk producing country in the world. They did not shy away from competition or crisis and in effect turned every crisis into an opportunity. What the farmers were given was an opportunity to create and to manage their creation themselves. The farmers were made responsible for their own lives, the responsibilty of producing, processing and marketing their products in their own hands. What the nation got in return was ‘Amul’, ‘Operation Flood’, ‘The National Dairy Development Board’, ‘IRMA’.
Dr Kurien, a firm man who stood strongly against all odds from all quarters of the government machinery, did not share a very strong rapport with the members of the bureaucracy due to their way of functioning. In him, they found a constant critic, as they had failed to connect with the people they were bound to serve, the citizens of the country. At one point of time he questions, “how do we educate the bureaucracy to be truly public servants – servants of the people – rather than the bosses most of them continue be?” His thoughts clearly reflect his displeasure with bureaucratic way of functioning which he ensured never plagued the organizations he helped form or headed.
Dr Kurien, a man not to be easily pleased, outspoken and at times belligerent as it turned out during his meeting with the politician Babu Jagjeevan Ram, was thoroughly convinced of the fact that if India utilized the power of its people, there was nothing that could stop the country. He was a strong believer of the potential of the farmers of this country and reiterated this time and again that if these rural people are mobilized effectively they had the ability to achieve anything and everything, and lead India to its rightful place in the world.
“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 new born 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.”
Contrary to what was advised to him, change, Dr Kurien believed, must take time. He was never in a hurry to get things accomplished by any and every way possible which seems to have become the norm of the present day governments, business houses, even the people who always seem to be in a hurry. He was a strong proponent of the belief that basic social and economic change needs to be brought about gradually and the more carefully and thoughtfully it is effected, the more permanent it will be. If only the government and the people involved in the governmental machinery pay heed to these words of the ‘Milkman of India’.
But it is not just the governmental machinery that needs to be fixed. Even the masses seem to be too keen on breaking all ties with the roots that made us who we are. The mindset that what belongs to the State belongs to everyone and needs to be taken care of by no one has befallen many a tragedy upon us. How easy it is for us to rob the state of what is due to it because it is always convenient to pass on the blame to the inefficiency of the government.
We, as a nation, are failing to create opportunities for self-sufficiency. There is a dire need for creative leaders who understand and effectuate true development, which is the development of all men and women. We cannot expect to develop only a few points and corners in the country and hope that the entire nation will be taken care of. We cannot only develop industries and conveniently ignore the majority of our population that resides in rural areas and is dependent on agriculture. The direction in which we are moving may prove to be ominous in the long run.
One cannot but agree with Dr Kurien when he writes:
“Our greatest national resource is our people and too often have we neglected this resource. We have, whether intentionally or not, created the illusion that all resources are in the hands of the government: that is the government and its agents who dole out resources. India would have been a far stronger nation had our people been asked to create resources.”
He believed that when people are given responsibilities, an element of accountability creeps in. They become self-reliant which gives them a voice of their own. It is, in fact, more important to empower people than to generate resources for them, for only if they are allowed and in fact encouraged to create and manage their creation/produce will there be a better handling of the opportunities that are going waste with every passing moment. Cooperatives are the answer to this. We ought to put faith in our own people and the immense potential that lies buried within each one of us.
The book is full of interesting anecdotes in Dr Kurien’s journey in making the farmers self-sustained. But for those expecting to know the life of Late Dr Kurien more personally, those intending to be aware of his follies, the book wouldn’t serve the purpose for it fails to bring up the many drawbacks that the great man would have had. An autobiography gets more real when it puts forth a human in a human perspective rather than merely highlighting the good that came along. This is the only point where the book, if I am permitted to say, fails.
Although an atheist, Dr Verghese Kurien, was a believer. The man gave his life to the cause of the farmers when he could have opted for a much better life elsewhere. These are the kind of men who have set the path for the youngsters of today. The responsibility of the India of our dreams now lies on our shoulders. Should we not give life to our dreams? May we take India to its rightful place before we sleep for that one last time. Every little step counts.
[i] The Institute of Rural Management Anand was set up by Dr Verghese Kurien in the year 1979 with a vision to train rural managers for the cooperatives and the NGO sector in the country. Dr Kurien, quite rightly, found that the management schools in the country trained students at the cost of the general masses by subsidizing their education, to cater to the needs of the profit oriented capitalist institutions all over the world. This, as Dr Kurien, found was a double loss to the nation and it lead him to believe that a separate institution with specialists and experts in the field of rural management and the various sectors attached to it must be established if we were to create many Kuriens in the future with dedication and commitment to serve the rural people and the farmers who form the backbone of our country.