Reflections on Dr. Verghese Kurien

Reproducing an article that appeared in Outlook magazine in 2018*

Were he still with us, Dr. V. Kurien would have turned 97 this month*. It is apt that his birth date, November 26th, is celebrated as National Milk Day. Dr. Kurien was the sole individual who, in the 1940s, recognized India’s potential for milk production and who devoted himself single-mindedly to achieve that potential. He inspired the staff of the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union and then the National Dairy Development Board who, in turn, worked with the nation’s farm families to transform dairying. Today India is by far the world’s leading milk producer. This is important not because of India’s pride of place in world dairying. It is important because it has benefitted millions of India’s farm families and crores of Indian consumers. But, as I reflect on my association with Dr. Kurien, I believe he made far more important contributions.

I came to know Dr. Kurien in 1982 when I became Representative in India for the Cooperative League of the United States of America (CLUSA), an American cooperative apex association.  In the early 1950s, CLUSA placed a Representative in India at the request of then Prime Minister Nehru.  The League was associated with a number of India’s cooperative organizations, projects and programs.  Cottage Industries – intended to be a cooperative owned by artisans – and the Indian Farmer Fertilizer Cooperative are two among many.  

In the late 1970s, Dr. Kurien had recognized the importance of oilseeds to Indian dairying.  He recognized that oilseed farmers were among the country’s poorest and that the oil barons were among India’s wealthiest.  He worked with Canadian and American donor agencies to employ the Operation Flood pattern – commodity donations transformed into the capital to invest in building a cooperative structure – to transform oilseed production, processing and marketing.  CLUSA was one of the Dairy Board’s partner and it was my good fortune to be appointed as the Representative in India working with NDDB.  When that association ended, Dr. Kurien was kind enough to ask me to work with NDDB as an FAO advisor.

While it was good of Outlook to ask me to write a tribute, the real tributes should come from a wide range of people whose lives have been enriched by his work – whether they worked with him, worked in NDDB, in a state dairy cooperative federation, district union, primary cooperative, in a milk booth, or simply purchased quality milk and milk products.  I have drawn heavily on the experience and knowledge of two Dairy Board colleagues, Shailendra Kumar and V.S. Behla, to prepare these reflections.

Dr. Kurien’s story was well known to an earlier generation.  To those Outlook readers who simply take their milk and milk products for granted, it may be worth a few words about why they can.  As he was fond of saying, Dr. Kurien got into dairying by accident.  He won a scholarship to Michigan State University to study dairy engineering.  He used much of the time in Michigan to study physics which he felt would be of more value to a newly-Independent India.  On his return he was posted to a small government creamery in Anand, a creamery that he told many audiences probably caused more fatalities in Mesopotamia during World War I than the enemy inflicted.  Once he began serving in Anand, his major aim was to escape the bond which imprisoned him. But by chance part of the creamery building was being used by a fledgling cooperative, the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union.  Its chairman, Tribhuvandas Patel, would ask Dr. Kurien to help fixthe ancient milk processing equipment that the cooperative was using.  Finally, exasperated by the hopeless condition of the equipment, Dr. Kurien told Tribhuvandas that they would never succeed unless they bought a new dairy plant.  Tribhuvandas asked how much it would cost and Dr. Kurien got an estimate from Larsen & Tubro.  To Dr. Kurien’s amazement, Tribhuvandas was able to raise the money to purchase the plant.  It was about that time when Dr. Kurien was finally released from his bond and was preparing to leave for a job with a multinational in Mumbai.  Tribhuvandas came to him and, essentially, shamed him into staying until the plant was commissioned.  As Dr. Kurien was fond of saying, “And I never left”.  

Even in the early 1950s Dr. Kurien saw the immense potential of dairying in India. For those who are interested in that remarkable foresight it is worth buying his book, An Unfinished Dream. The very first chapter lays out a blueprint for the development of dairying in India, a blueprint that, with minor modifications, served to transform India from a milk deficit nation into the world’s largest milk producer.

There are very few men or women who have set a goal and pursued it for more than fifty years, a goal not for himself, but for millions of others.  And of those very few, far fewer have succeeded in achieving such a goal.  That Dr. Kurien was able to do, and the reasons for his success, carries a lesson for young people in India and around the world.  If I may, I would like to offer a suggestion about why he was able to succeed.  Fundamentally it was his adherence to some basic principles, supported by his deeply held personal values.

Dr. Kurien was fond of saying that his efforts were not to produce milk, but to provide opportunities for India’s rural people – it was not the development of dairying, but the development of man.  It was this fierce focus on the rural farm family that was core to Dr. Kurien and to all that he did.  He believed strongly that India’s strength lay in its rural people – he was fond of saying that all the scoundrels had left the villages and gone to the cities.  He saw that dairying could become a major industry, one that would not simply provide incomes but opportunities to extend the knowledge of science, business skills and most importantly a grassroots opportunity to practice democracy.

In an age when there is a debate between those who want to remove barriers to economic development – even at the cost of the environment – and those who believe we are trustees of this earth and that we must protect it for future generations, Dr. Kurien’s principle was that dairying should be developed in ways that never competed with man for scarce resources.  He focused on the importance of plant residues and byproducts so that dairying could take place without diverting land and other resources to the support of dairying.  

Recognizing the importance of closing the gulf between rich and poor, he helped ensure that investment in dairying concentrated on small holders, those with one or two animals.  It was no accident that a substantial portion of cooperative members were drawn from marginal and small farmers, and even the landless.  Since those early days. dairying in India has seen generational change as the earlier dairy cooperative members “graduated” and new, usually poorer, dairy farmers replaced them.  The success of one generation has led to opportunities for the next.

Dr. Kurien knew that if there was no Mumbai, there could be no Anand.  Development programs around the world focus on increasing production.  Dr. Kurien recognized that the core of dairy development was stable, remunerative markets.  Markets pull production.  Successful marketing depended in turn on cold chains, but even more on consumer trust in the product.  He built the Amul brand name into one that is widely respected, not just in India but around the world.  And as new cooperatives achieved success, new brands arose to provide India’s consumers with fine milk and products, ensuring that dairy farmers would have the income not only to survive, but to thrive; not only to maintain their animals, but to invest in improved productivity.

The final principle I would like to mention is integrity.  Dr. Kurien was a man of unimpeachable honesty and integrity, both personal and professional.  He set an example for all the employees of NDDB and the other institutions he led.  It was that, I believe, that drew so many fine people to work with the Dairy Board.  And those people, many of whom spent their entire careers working for NDDB, were critical to the success of the dairy cooperative movement.  They traveled to remote villages, they faced physical deprivation and even threats, they worked far beyond a normal work day, again and again.  They did so because they believed in Dr. Kurien and his commitment to the Indian dairy farmer.

As we remember Dr. Kurien and celebrate his life, let us not forget that his achievement was not milk, it was demonstrating that given the opportunity India’s rural farmers could produce miracles. All that was required was a dream, sticking to fundamental principles, integrity and the courage to transform challenges into opportunities.


Here is a link from YouTube of a video; Dr Kurien sharing
his thoughts

https://youtu.be/X0PGkL0T1-c


* This article had appeared in Outlook Magazine in 2018

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Dr. Verghese Kurien”

  1. Dr SC Malhotra

    There are more video clips of Dr. Kurein below the same link on YouTube (www.wildfilmsindia.com). All of them worth listening. If there are no copy right issues, these may be downloaded and made a part of Vrikshamandir. ( I am not aware of the legalities, but these are worth making a section in Vrikshamandir )
    Just a wild idea to explore 🤔

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