V Kurien: Man who brought ‘Anand’ to India

11 Sep,2012

By A Correspondent

 

Death, wrote Scottish playwright poet Sir Walter Scott, is not the last sleep, but the “last and final awakening”. Verghese Kurien, who passed away in the wee hours of Sunday near Anand in Gujarat at the age of 90, would have agreed.

 

After all, he knew a thing or two about awakenings: The Syrian Christian by birth but bornagain atheist was a messiah to millions of modest milkmen whom he empowered at the expense of predatory middlemen by founding the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF); he built the Amul brand of dairy products and went on to replicate its success nationwide with the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB); he then launched Operation Flood, or the White Revolution, which as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted in a condolence message is responsible for making “India the largest milk producer in the world. His greatest contribution was to give a position of pre-eminence to the farmer…”

 

Like most leaders of awakenings, Mr Kurien was fiery, blunt and controversial. Multinationals faced the brunt of his fire, and ire, over the decades. Way back in 1956, he stormed out of a Nestle board meeting in Switzerland when the dairy multinational was reluctant to “let natives handle a sensitive commodity like milk”. In 2008, two years after he resigned as GCMMF chairman in the wake of increasing dissent against him from board members, he thundered (in a chat with Economic Times): “When we started, there were Cadbury, Horlicks, Nestle, Polson ahead of us. Where are they now?” And two years ago, he was exhorting the country’s milk producers to unite against MNC “opportunists”.

 

The man who won a host of top local and international honours, from the Wateler Peace Prize and World Food Prize to the Padma Vibhushan – many felt he deserved a Bharat Ratna and perhaps even a Nobel Peace Prize – was also an enfant terrible of sorts. Unconventional to a fault, he had a reputation for not dressing up his thoughts and actions in political correctness. In 2001, Mr Kurien was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the ET Awards for Corporate Excellence, which he shared with Reliance Industries founder Dhirubhai Ambani.

 

Mr Kurien often yearned for life beyond Anand, a village with 10,000 people, and would periodically escape to Mumbai for the weekends. “I would dress up nicely, put on my green felt hat and ‘misbehave’, waiting for the government to accept my resignation as a dairy engineer posted in Anand,” he once told ET, only half in jest. A few years ago, when he was asked about the imminent entry of a fresh set of multinationals, he minced few words when he declared that “we will take their pants off “.

 

And Mr Kurien seldom displayed reluctance in running in with politicians and bureaucrats in his efforts to do good for milk farmers.

 

Says NDDB Chairman Amrita Patel: “He strode like a titan across the bureaucratic barriers and obstacles that, at virtually every stage of NDDB’s history, could have brought it to its knees. By his example, he has taught us to act with courage when faced with those who oppose the interests of our nation and its farmers.”

 

“I dealt with politicians and bureaucrats to grow Amul’s reach while HM Dalaya (who built Amul’s tech backbone) took charge of the dairy operations,” Mr Kurien told The Economic Times in a chat in 2008.

 

Still, such a penchant for provocation led to inevitable confrontations, a few of which ended up with Mr Kurien on the losing side. In March 2006, 33 years after becoming the chairman of GFMMF, the Milkman of India resigned – not because he had reached a ripe old age (84), but because he had no choice, what with 11 of 12 board members going against him. Ironically, Mr Kurien and his protege Ms Patel ended up in the two corners of the ring in a bruising, long-drawn public spat. Ms Patel had a view that NDDB had to be corporatised as the marketing set-up was in a shambles. Mr Kurien felt this would be tantamount to backdoor privatisation.

 

There is a view that the man who gave up plenty of things in life – from God to his hometown Kozhikode in Kerala – could not let go of what he cherished the most: Amul, the brand he built with unswerving dedication and focus over almost six decades. “If Amul has become a successful brand, it is because we have honoured our contract with consumers for close to 50 years. If we had failed to do so, Amul would have been consigned to the dustbin of history, along with thousands of other brands,” said Mr Kurien at a marketing seminar over a decade ago.

 

Taking him away from the baby he fathered, nurtured and grew, hurt. The experience was similar at his other creation, the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). Mr Kurien was prodded into starting the institute in the late 70s when he was slighted by a board member of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A). In response to Mr Kurien’s predictable observation that students should not be trained just to work with MNCs, one of the board members wondered aloud whether he wanted IIM students to milk cows.

 

A furious Mr Kurien resigned from the IIM’s board and went on to set up a rural management institute. But here too, he had a run-in with the top leadership. As life-long chairman of IRMA, Mr Kurien was keen to get rid of then director K Prathap Reddy. The matter went to court. The key difference here, however, is that Mr Kurien won. Such rows were perhaps inevitable in the life of a person who had a strong belief and who would never step away from it, come hell, high water, politician or bureaucrat. And that belief was that the farmer had to be empowered. As Bajaj Auto Chairman Rahul Bajaj says: “He was an exemplar. His success underlines the great management acumen he had.”

 

Adds Shyam Benegal, director of Manthan, a film based on a story jointly written by Kurien and Benegal and set against the backdrop of the White Revolution: “He is a hero of free India – imagine a man turning a milk-deficit country into the largest milk-producing nation in the world in a span of 25 years. Importantly, he was also extraordinarily honest and free of any kind of greed for money.” BJP leader Arun Jaitley counts Mr Kurien among “the biggest missionaries in post-Independence India”.

 

“Eight hours for dairy, eight hours for your family, and eight hours for sleep,” was one of Mr Kurien’s favourite maxims. The man who has reached the final awakening will neither be at the dairy nor at the side of wife Molly, daughter Nirmala and grandson Siddharth; but the iconic Amul moppet along with millions of farmers and consumers of Amul milk, chocolates, cheese, butter, paneer, mithai et al will ensure the Kurien legacy eludes the clutches of the Grim Reaper.

 

Source:The Economic Times

Copyright © 2012, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved

 

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