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The magic of manthan

The Amul dairy movement was a true agent of social change, the inheritor of the freedom struggle. Verghese Kurien’s departure marks the death of the original vision

By Tridip Suhrud

Tridip Suhrud
On May 13, 1949, Verghese Kurien, a 28-year-old Syrian Christian, trained in metallurgy and nuclear physics, arrived in Anand. He was contract bound to the government of India which had funded his higher education at the Michigan State University. His appointment was at the government creamery, a 1914 creation, with the missive to produce small quantities of milk powder from buffalo milk. It was a task hardly worthy of his training and aspirations. The young engineer played cards, ate valet-served dinner in the garage that was his house and escaped to the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai as often as his monthly salary of Rs 350 allowed. If his life in Anand seemed purposeless, the other half of the creamery was full of purpose and commitment. The story of Verghese Kurien cannot be told without the story of the other half.

A part of the creamery was rented out by the government to the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers Union Limited (KDCMPUL) and its 46-year-old chairman, Tribhuvandas Patel. Kheda was uniquely positioned for a cooperative movement and for the dairy business. Gandhi’s Kheda Satyagraha of 1918 had sowed the seeds of a movement of the peasantry. Sardar Patel had also nurtured the Kheda peasantry, dominated by his Patidar community. Kheda was already a large milk supplier to the Bombay Milk Scheme (BMS). Anand had a dairy, Polson, owned by Pestonjee Edulji, since 1926. Polson had monopolised milk procurement from Kheda for BMS. Anand’s location on the train route between Ahmedabad and Mumbai made this movement possible.

The Kheda Congress under the guidance of Sardar Patel and Morarji Desai decided to challenge the monopoly of Polson. The man chosen was a satyagrahi, Tribhuvandas Patel, and the mode was the cooperative movement. A meeting was called at Chaklasi village in 1946 and two historic resolutions were passed, which laid the foundation of the dairy cooperative movement in India. The farmers resolved to not supply milk to Polson and to form a cooperative in each village and to establish a union of these villages at Anand. This meeting determined the essential features of what we now know as the ‘Anand Pattern’. It rests on the farmers’ cooperatives owning and controlling the procurement, processing and marketing of milk. Tribhuvandas led a 15-day-long milk strike, where farmers refused to supply milk to Polson, preferring instead to pour it on the village streets. In 1946, Tribhuvandas had established five village cooperatives and also the KDCMPUL at Anand. Verghese Kurien resigned from his government job but was persuaded by Tribhuvandas to join the Anand experiment. The two decided to install a new dairy plant.

White Revolution: Smita Patil in Shyam Benegal’s Manthan, produced by the cooperative movement
 
The Anand experiment was the outcome of caste consolidation, peasant movement, Congress politics and technological and managerial commitment, all working for nation-building
The country’s most advanced dairy plant owned by farmers and managed by Tribhuvandas Patel as chairman of KDCMPUL and Kurien as general manager was installed in a record time of 11 months and dedicated to the nation by Nehru on October 31, 1955. Kurien had persuaded HM Dalaya, a dairy technologist and fellow student at Michigan to join in the excitement. The farmers’ union registered the Amul trademark in 1957.

This remarkable achievement was a triumph of democratic process. The Anand experiment was the outcome of caste consolidation, peasant movement, Congress politics and technological and managerial commitment: all working towards nation-building. Tribhuvandas and Kurien were ideal partners. Tribhuvandas managed the political and the social processes of the peasantry and the cooperative movement, while Kurien was a technocrat who was proud to be a servant of the farmer.

The dairy cooperative brought new notions to Gujarat. The cooperatives functioned as autonomous units in a transparent and democratic process. It nurtured a commitment to quality: each member was paid by a measure of the fat content of the milk. It was an invitation to be honest, and the farmers did not fail. The cooperative created a large monetised rural economy. It helped create and maintain rural infrastructure and experimented with models of transfer of technologies — from hybrid milch animals to scientifically produced cattle feed, to artificial insemination to perhaps the finest rural and animal health delivery system in the country.

Arguably the best compliment to this model came from the disempowered. Despite its caste basis, the idea of the cooperative came to be accepted as a powerful means of organising the poor and the powerless. Dalits, adivasis and women created powerful local social movements and organisations on the basis of the mandali, Gujarat’s most significant social innovation.

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s one night stay at a farmer’s house in Ajarpura village in 1965 demonstrated the nature of the political commitment to Anand’s success. This led to the establishment of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), to replicate the Anand Pattern countrywide. NDDB was entirely created by the funds gifted by the Amul and Kheda farmers, perhaps the only instance where a national body was created by a cooperative of the farmers.

Kurien was possessed by what he calls the ‘billion litre’ dream of making India self-reliant in milk and dairy produce. He conceived Operation Flood to fund Indian dairy development through the sale of European surpluses in milk powder and butter oil. It lasted 26 years (1970-1996) and was the most ambitious programme to reconstitute liquid milk supply, resettle urban cattle and improve their stock. Seventy-two thousand milk cooperatives were formed in the process. Despite criticisms of ‘faulty lactometers’ and ‘white lie’, the magic of Manthan endured; until recently.

The last three years have seen acrimonious public battles between Kurien and Amrita Patel, his chosen successor at NDDB. At its core is a battle about the identity of the cooperative ideal. Kurien has charged NDDB of forsaking the cooperative ideal and moving towards a corporatised entity.

Kurien’s lone and increasingly shrill voice is not heard, largely because the cooperative movement has all but lost its legitimacy. The process began not in 2003-04 but in 1994. The death of Tribhuvandas, the Congress’ demise in Gujarat and the failure of the cooperative movement to sustain the democratic process led to a scenario where the cooperative is no longer a movement. The cooperative without a democratic ideal was bound to become part of the market forces. This failure was not Kurien’s. It was an outcome of processes which rendered all democratic institutions as instruments of political power and cooperatives a source of easy funding. The large-scale failure of the cooperative banking industry in Gujarat dealt a body blow not only to the small savings of millions but robbed Gujarat of an innovation that was a true agent of change.

The last two years should, however, not cloud the ‘Anand Pattern’ and the two remarkable men who made it successful. The story of Polson is instructive. Amul destroyed the exploitative monopoly of Polson; but the NDDB library houses the bust of Pestonjee Edulji as a reminder of his role in the development of the Indian dairy industry. We should be capable of greater understanding and generosity. Verghese Kurien should not be allowed to fade out as a ‘first day cover’. His dream was the dream of democratic and self-reliant India; and that dream is much larger than the men and women who dreamt it.

The writer, an Ahmedabad-based social scientist, is translating Narayan Desai’s
four-part biography of Gandhi, Maru Jivan Ej Mari Vani, into English

Apr 08 , 2006
 

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