He covered the last mile

Eras, like the one Verghese Kurien inaugurated, never come to an end

The passing of Verghese Kurien on September 9 marks the end of an era. He was, of course, a man with a vision. As John Maynard Keynes said, however, even mad men have visions. But Kurien was one of those rare men who not only have a vision, but fashion mighty edifices to achieve them. He changed the discourse. When I went to the Food and Agriculture Organisation to build their first model for world agriculture, the orthodoxy was that dairying could be done only on a large scale, not by the unemployed farmer who, being without any resources, presented a problem. Kurien refused to accept that dogma and argued that if those farmers could access technology and markets on their farms, they could instead become an asset. Despite criticism, he had the conviction of his beliefs and would not budge from his vision. He was vindicated when first India, and then the world, recognised his achievements by showering him with awards and glory.

Kurien covered the last mile. During my early days at the Planning Commission, he had a project that dealt with shrikhands for the Sugam Dairy. The guys at the project division wouldn't bite, because his ideas would leave halwais unemployed and the technology was unproven. He asked me to help and I arranged a meeting, at which he listened to their objections. Then, looking them straight in the eye, he said, "You fellows can't milk a cow and are giving me lectures". Kurien would reverse engineer cheese and construct machines to dispense milk if necessary. And soon enough, the culmination of his ideas, Amul, came to symbolise all that is India.

Kurien hated crooks and charlatans. He insisted that co-operatives have regular elections and have their accounts audited annually. The Institute of Rural Management, Anand, asked me to succeed him as its head, an invitation I refused out of respect for Kurien. On their insistence, I agreed to discuss the matter with him. On a hot summer's day in the Kurien enclave in Anand, he told me: "If you are doing it, Yoginder, I am happy". Then, he gave me a set of papers that he said were charges that had been framed against him. I threw the papers away, as I haboured no doubts about Kurien's integrity, but I wondered why we felt the need to constantly run down our icons.

A third of rural income comes from dairying, and Kurien produced the only viable model for it. Thirty years ago he realised that dairying isn't just about machines, technology and co-operatives. It is also about human capital. Dairying, at least the way he envisioned it, required the best managers, too. To listen to the men and women he inspired people such as R.S. Sodhi and S. Sivakumar, among others is to listen to a different vision of management. They tell their students about the importance of solving rural problems and IRMA is a management school that expects its students to take up challenging, socially relevant jobs.

What about the future? In my opinion, Kurien's influence will not wane.The National Dairy Development Plan talks of co-operatives, self help groups and producer companies. Many NGOs work on those models. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development is building financial products for these NGOs. Even private corporate entities like DCM's Hariyali and Rallis's i-Shakti pulses follow the producer-company model pioneered by Kurien. It is another matter that the corporate affairs ministry is giving a cold shoulder to the second amendment of the company act, which mandated producer companies. Producer companies are the cornerstone of Kurien's legacy, and they, despite the corporate affairs ministry's indifference, will continue to thrive.

The writer, a former Union minister, is chairman, Institute of Rural Management, Anand

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