When MS Swaminathan, father of India’s Green Revolution, met Verghese Kurien first in 1954, the two mild-mannered South Indians had little inkling that their bond would grow beyond conversations on Wisconsin, Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Brand Amul. They would soon become lifelong friends, each a contributor in his own right to India’s stellar growth in agricultural and dairy production.
“I first met Dr Kurien at Anand when he had just returned from the US after his doctorate in dairy technology,” Swaminathan told CNBC-TV18 in an interview at his modest office of the research foundation that bears his name in Chennai. “At that time, the Amul Cooperative Society was being formed.”
The formative months of Amul, India’s best-known milk and dairy products brand, was especially significant because it was just after Sardar Vallabhai Patel had exhorted Indian farmers to form a dairy cooperative of their own, in order to counter the monopoly that was exercised by the then market leader, Polson.
The early years
“I had returned from the University of Wisconsin, and he (Kurien) had visited Wisconsin. So we used to talk about the place,” Swaminathan said. “When we began spending time together, Kurien would often tell me of his plans to enhance dairy production at Anand (in Gujarat).
Kurien said he will provide technology and you (Swaminathan) help in organisation, Swaminathan reminisced.
Swaminathan was associated with Amul by virtue of his role as Director General at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The colleagues soon became “lifelong friends”.
But his admiration of Kurien took root in the latter’s affinity for the adoption of technology in dairy production and effective collaboration with the local community. This also played a role in catalysing India’s White Revolution, of which Kurien is credited as the chief architect.
A remarkable feat
India is the world’s biggest milk producer, a superlative feat given that the commodity is staple for a population of 1.3 billion.
Swaminathan recalled those early days and how Amul grew into a formidable brand.
“Technology surrounding milk processing, its storage and distribution was an important value-addition to the primary milk product,” said Swaminathan, “As a scientist, he (Kurien) provided technological backup. The Patels (community) took care of organising groups, cooperatives societies and local farmers. So, a combination of management in organization and technology then became a powerful tool.”
Kurien was fondly referred to as the ‘Milkman of India’. He was chairman of the cooperative body that runs Amul until 2006 and won a raft of awards such as the Padma Vibhushan, the World Food Prize and the Magsaysay Award.
Kurien’s greatest asset, according to Swaminathan, was his attitude towards criticism, choosing to turn it into the opportunity to make a point. “Everyone knows that Kurien received the Ramon Magsaysay Award at a very young age, and it evoked a great deal of jealousy,” Swaminathan recalled.
“There was an article not long after, in one journal, which questioned the White Revolution. I met him (Kurien) that day, and if I were him, I would have been upset. But he said: ‘This is a good opportunity for me to put all the facts and figures on the table’. So, he looked at it as an opportunity rather than criticism. That attitude is important for success.”
In Swaminathan’s words, Kurien gave strength to his movement. “He was not Gujarati and couldn’t speak Gujarati,” he recalled, with a smile. “In fact, Prime Minister Moraji Desai singled him out for praise for that reason: he said, ‘Kurien, without knowing Gujarati, you have been able to attract respect from all Gujaratis’.”
India and diary farmers continue to benefit from the work left behind by Kurien. The farmer, arguably for the first time, got pre-eminence and could break away from the clutches of middlemen.“His lasting legacy is to have made a contribution to take India to the top of the world in dairy production,” said Swaminathan.