LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP

This is a photograph clicked by Meera Singh my granddaughter. She took this photo was taken on 9 January 2021. The credit for ensuring that the book “Utterly Butterly Milkman” is published on time for release at the 100th birth anniversary of Dr Verghese Kurien goes to Nirmala Kurien. Some of us “ancient former NDDB employees” did our best to help and support her.

Incidentally many memoirs written by my former colleagues and friends about the founder Chairman of NDDB Dr. V Kurien and published on Vrikshamandir.com have been included in the book Utterly Butterly Milkman”.

I thought of sharing on Vrikshamandir a memoir that I wrote for “Utterly Butterly Milkman”.


This is from back in those days when attacks by vested interests, private operators and politicians on the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) projects and programmes and against Dr Kurien as a person were common. 

We had a couple of officers in the Chairman’s office dedicated to handling questions raised by the hundreds in every parliament session.  We were going through difficult times, but there was plenty of action and the excitement of dealing with the situations that arose was rewarding. A case, in particular, was a notice for a meeting to be held on July 26, 1983, to review the NDDB Oilseeds and Vegetable Oil project. 

The meeting was to be chaired by Union Minister of Agriculture, Rao Birendra Singh. The Secretaries of Agriculture and Civil Supplies and a host of senior bureaucrats and technical officers were to participate. 

The agenda notes we received a month before the meeting were full of errors. The officers in the Oilseeds and Vegetable Oil Wing of the NDDB, which I headed at that time, were aghast at the false accusations and factual errors that had found a place in these notes. The notes had been circulated to all the invitees. 

A brief for Dr Kurien was prepared to provide the actual facts on each agenda point, seeking his approval to send an interim reply to the Ministry of Agriculture so that the errors could be corrected. 

But Dr Kurien forbade us to send any reply. He said, “We will look at these papers on our return from North America.” We were very surprised.

Dr Kurien advised me to forget about the meeting called by the ministry and instead focus on getting briefs from the concerned departments of the NDDB for the meetings scheduled during our visit to the US and Canada later that month. Back in India from our visit, July 26, 1983, the day of the meeting at New Delhi’s Krishi Bhavan, was finally upon us. As advised by Dr Amrita Patel, 

I reached the room of Mr Rajagopal, Joint Secretary, Dairy Development at Krishi Bhavan, to meet her and Dr Kurien. When it was time for the meeting, I followed Dr Kurien, Dr Patel and Mr Rajagopal. As we entered the room, we noticed that there were already some fifteen to twenty people waiting for the minister. 

They got up and the first one among them to greet Dr Kurien was Mr Sood, then Additional Secretary (Agriculture). Dr Kurien shook his hand. “Good morning, Mr Sood, what are you doing these days?” “Sir, I am Additional Secretary (A).” “You people have very interesting designations… Additional Secretary ‘A’, Additional Secretary ‘B’, ‘C’.” There was silence and some muted laughter.
Dr Kurien moved around in the room and greeted others. Among them were the agriculture secretary and the civil supplies secretary. 

Suddenly, addressing no one in particular, Dr Kurien asked, “Tell me who has prepared the agenda notes for this meeting.” “Why, Dr Kurien?” someone in the room asked in return. “It has been prepared to create differences between me and the minister,” he replied. 

There was silence. The minister had not yet arrived. There was small talk in some corners of the room but no one responded to Dr Kurien. This was when the minister Rao Birendra Singh arrived for the meeting. All of us stood up. 

Mr Singh responded to the greetings, removed his cap, took a seat and looked at the Chairman. 

“So, Dr Kurien, what is your problem?” he asked. 

“Sir, I have no problems.” 

“Then why are we having this meeting? Let us go through the agenda. It has the details.” 

“Sir, the agenda notes seem to have been prepared by someone to create differences between you and me. I would like to share with you the brief that my office has prepared for me for this meeting.” 

Dr Kurien then handed over to Mr Singh a copy of the brief that had been prepared by us. The minister took the brief and flipped through a few pages. The first item on the agenda was that the NDDB had not provided information on the progress of the Oilseeds and Vegetable Oil project to the agriculture ministry. Dr Kurien said, 

“Sir, we provide fortnightly, monthly, quarterly, six-monthly progress reports to the ministry. My brief for this meeting, a copy of which is with you, has in the appendix details with dates and reference numbers of the letters from NDDB under which such reports have been sent to the ministry. “And, if I may say so, sir, of the seven organisations that are attached to your ministry, NDDB and IDC, both of which I serve as chairman, are the only two organisations who submit annual reports and audited statements of accounts each year, on time, to be tabled in Parliament.” 

The minister was quiet for a moment and then said, “Let us move to the next item on the agenda.” This agenda item was about the sale of donated vegetable oil by the NDDB to raise funds for the project. The agenda notes circulated by the ministry stated that the NDDB sold donated vegetable oil to private parties at rates lower than at which it sold them to cooperatives

Dr Kurien responded, “Sir, do you believe this Kurien will sell edible oil to the private sector at rates lower than what he sells to cooperatives?”

One of the officers sitting behind the minister said, “This is as per the teleprinter message dated so and so received from Shailendra Kumar of NDDB.”

I was stunned. I did not have a copy of the message that the gentleman from the ministry had referred to. I looked at Dr Patel and there was stoic silence. I thought maybe we had made some mistake and that I was in for even greater trouble. But that was not to be. Dr Kurien looked at me and then at Mr Singh, and pointed me out to him saying, “This is Shailendra.” 

Then he took complete control of the situation. He said something that I should have said but, at the time, my confused mind was preoccupied with the consequences than with coming up with a suitable reply. “Sir, a typed and signed confirmatory message of each teleprinter message from NDDB is also sent to the recipient. 

Was the teleprinter message sent by Shailendra cross-checked with the confirmatory copy of the message? If the matter was so urgent, why didn’t the concerned officer in your ministry lift the phone and check with Dr Patel who is posted right here in Delhi?” 

There was silence. Mr Rao Birender Singh did not know what to say. Finally, he replied, “Why are we meeting then? Why don’t you all review this project before bringing it up to me?” 

Dr Kurien had an answer to that as well. Pointing to a page in the brief which was already in the hands of the minister, Dr Kurien said, “Sir, when the Cabinet of India approved this project, it also provided for a review committee comprising the agriculture secretary, the civil supplies secretary and the NDDB’s chairman. However, this committee has never met in the last three and a half years since the project started.” 

Mr Singh said, “Then why don’t you all meet and sort things out.” With this, he closed the meeting and left the room. 

As I reflect on life at Dr Kurien’s NDDB, I am filled with memories of the many struggles and achievements of the institution under his leadership. I recall, in particular, something he said at a seminar in 1967, which was a precursor to the formation of the Protein Foods Association of India. “We must have a calculated sense of recklessness.” 

This particular incident was showed this very mantra of his in action. An episode filled with lessons in leadership. “WE MUST HAVE A CALCULATED SENSE OF RECKLESSNESS.” (Shailendra Kumar is former Senior General Manager, Human Resources, NDDB.)

This anecdote was first published in “Utterly Butterly Milkman” 


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