Dr Kurien was a fearless karmyogi and he never asked for anything for himself. I recall when Jagjivan Ram wanted a private dairy to be funded under Operation Flood (OF), Dr Kurien’s blunt reply was that it could not be done. Surely the Minister had wanted him to be sacked but could not because of the Prime Minister’s support for Dr Kurien.
Dr Kurien was blunt with the bureaucrats as well. Early in the implementation of OF, PN Haksar,a Member of the Planning Commission, asked as to why the project was not being implemented speedily. Dr Kurien’s reply was that the delay was because of him. Haksar was taken aback and wanted Dr Kurien to explain. Dr Kurien then mentioned that the approval for the setting up of the Mother Dairy in Delhi had been pending with the Planning Commission for a long time.
Haksar then asked for the concerned Joint Secretary to explain the delay. The Joint Secretary stated that he had some questions on the subject, like the use of stainless steel in the milk tanks at the bulk vending machines. At that time steel was being imported and we were short of foreign exchange. Dr Kurien then told the Joint Secretary that if he had questions why did he not ask? We have a postal system. He could have picked up the phone and asked. What had stopped him from asking these questions?
Dr Kurien then asked him the Planning Commission did not object to the use of stainless steel in the toilets in the Indian Railways. Why was he objecting to its use in milk booths now?
Dr Kurien then informed him that the tanks in question were to be made of fiberglass reinforced plastic. The Joint Secretary had not read the report. Dr Kurien then went on to question him if he was the Joint Secretary or the disjointed secretary. The project got cleared the same day.
Dr Kurien was just as blunt with the politicians. The Minister of Civil Supplies in the early ’eighties, V C Shukla, was withholding approval for NDDB’s Vegetable Oil and Oilseeds Project. The same minister’s staff had telephoned the General Manager of the Mother Dairy in Delhi to take back a driver who had been dismissed in a disciplinary case. Dr Kurien met the minister and explained to him as to how the project in question would make India self-sufficient in edible oils on the lines of the milk project. The minister did not seem to be interested in Dr Kurien’s explanation and nonchalantly told him to leave the proposal and he would go through it. Dr Kurien then asked him if there was anything on the minister’s mind, hoping the minister would raise the question of the dismissed driver. The minister did not say anything.
“Dr Kurien then asked him the Planning Commission did not object to the use of stainless steel in the toilets in the Indian Railways. Why was he objecting to its use in milk booths now?”
Dr Kurien then said, “Sir there is this question of a driver that you want to be taken back. Before I came to you I explained to the General Manager of the Mother Dairy that we need your approval to this Rs 300 crore project.”
“So why can you not take this driver back?”
Dr Kurien’s reply was that the driver in question was dismissed on serious charges. He went to the court and lost his case. He said, “If I take him back, I will lose the moral authority to run the Mother Dairy. My staff expects me to support them and that driver will not be taken back. You can now do whatever you want with the proposal before or after reading it.”
The minister was taken aback and slumped in his chair and said, “So what they say about you is true. I will support you but you will have to pay a price”.
Dr Kurien quipped back, “What is the price, Sir”?
The minister said, “You will have to help me manage the Asian Games”.
The next day we were at the Management Committee meeting of the Asian Games and I recall Eswaran, the then Finance Secretary, asking Dr Kurien as to what he was he doing at the meeting. Dr Kurien replied, “Maybe you have to drink milk to jump higher and run faster”.
The Minister did support the oilseeds project.