I am in the business of empowerment. Milk is just a tool in that.” This simple statement of Dr Verghese Kurien captures the essence of the White Revolution, a movement that catapulted a woefully milk deficit India into a global leader. A paltry trickle of 17 million metric tonnes (mmt) with a per capita per day availability of 130 grams in the year 1950-51, early years of our independence, has grown into a flood of 188 mmt constituting 22 percent of the global milk production. Per capita per day availability stands at 394 grams, higher by 121 grams over the global average of 273. The total value of our dairy produce in the year 2017-18 was a staggering Rs 7,01,530 crore, while during the corresponding period the combined value of wheat and paddy was Rs 4,46,205 crore.
The Green Revolution had been a strong precursor to serve as a model but fortunately this model was not adopted for milk, so good happened. Over the decades, agriculture growth has been an unimpressive two percent or thereabouts, as have been the farm prices, leading to agrarian distress in several parts of the country. In contrast, milk production has consistently grown at over six per cent annually ever since the White Revolution, under the impressively named scheme Operation Flood, was launched. What was the difference? The Green Revolution was technology centric, and infusion of technology and better farming practices did increase production substantially, especially of foodgrains. But did it also increase farmer well-being? Not necessarily. On the other hand, from its beginning, the White Revolution has been farmer focused, thus ensuring sustainable growth. The centrepiece of this model of growth has been the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Limited (GCMMF), known popularly as Amul. And if amongst the millions that created this organisation credit were to be accorded to one man, it would undoubtedly be its chief architect the late Dr Verghese Kurien who would have been ninety nine years old on 26th November, a day appropriately celebrated as the National Milk Day to commemorate him, India’s first Milkman.
The relentless assault of the lethal coronavirus has led to extended periods of lockdown and caused massive disruptions in national production and supply chains. However, if there is one agricultural commodity that has withstood this unprecedented crisis, it is milk. If there were any disruptions in milk supply, they were confined to short periods of time in a few isolated geographical pockets. On the whole, this essential food item remained readily available throughout the country. The role of dairy cooperatives deserves enormous credit for ensuring uninterrupted supply while safeguarding the producer interests.
Thanks to the White Revolution, India’s per capita per day availability on milk is 394 grams, higher by 121 grams over the global average of 273
During the long lockdown, GCMMF procured an additional 3.5 million litres milk per day, an increase of 15 per cent over its average. There was a significant fall in demand with restaurants, tea and halwai shops closed in the country for more than two months. Most private dairies either stopped collection or drastically slashed both the quantity collected and procurement price. GCMMF and its member unions, however, continued paying the regular procurement price, which is inevitably higher than the market, and collected every single drop of milk offered by the farmers. This is the demonstration of the strength and resilience of cooperatives in a crisis, but more importantly a reinforcement of trust of its members in their institution. It is this trust that forms the backbone of cooperatives.
India’s dairy revolution is an unusual saga, as riveting as it is inspiring. The first seed was sown in 1946 in Anand, a small dusty town in Kaira district of Gujarat. The rural economy was heavily dependent upon milk but the milk producers, many of whom were marginal or landless farmers, were exploited by groups of brokers and dudhiyas who engaged in grossly unfair and manipulative trade practices. The consumer market was dominated by Polson Dairy, owned and managed by a shrewd Parsi businessman named Pestonjee Edulji whose influence extended to the higher echelons of power. In fact, Polson Dairy enjoyed an unrestricted monopoly in procurement, processing and marketing. No wonder, the price to the farmers as also the quantity to be procured was solely this dairy’s discretion through its network of local cartels. The modus operandi was simple but merciless: refuse to buy in the flush season and question the quality during scarcity.
In 1946, the desperate farmers resorted to a strike pouring their milk onto the roads. Milk became a symbol of protest against exploitation, but beyond such demonstrations the farmers remained clueless. They approached Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to seek his support. His advice was as visionary as it was simple. Get rid of the middlemen, take affairs in your hands and form a cooperative that should control the entire operation from procurement to marketing. The Sardar entrusted the task of guiding the farmers to Morarji Desai and thereafter was born the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union Limited under the apolitical leadership of Tribhuvandas Patel, the epitome of honesty, simplicity and diehard commitment to the spirit of cooperation. The beginning was humble, including only two village milk cooperative societies handling a meagre 247 litres a day.
Over the next several years the cooperative kept growing slowly but surely. And then a reluctant young engineer arrived in Anand to work in the government creamery, the price to be paid for the scholarship he had obtained to study in the USA. Dr Verghese Kurien was born in a prominent Syrian Christian family of Calicut (now Kozhikode), Kerala. Though he was eager to quit both Anand and the government after serving the term of the bond, he began helping the nascent cooperative with technical issues. After he had talked Tribhuvandas Patel into investing in a new dairy plant, he was getting ready to leave Anand for a job in Bombay. Tribhuvandas Patel learned he was about to depart and went to him saying, “You talked us into a major investment and now you’re going to leave”. He persuaded Dr Kurien to stay back until the new dairy was commissioned and arranged to pay him Rs 500 per month, the princely sum that Dr Kurien had been offered to work for a multinational in Bombay. Dr Kurien later recalled it as an emotional moment, “I could not go when he (Tribhuvandas Patel) said: Anand needs you”. And, as he often said, “I never left.”
The diagnosis of what ailed dairying in Gujarat was simple. The entire spectrum of dairying viz procurement, processing and marketing was highly disorganised. In consequence, the returns remained low and provided little incentive for farmers to increase the herd or improve productivity. Dr Kurien believed that “India’s place in the sun would come from the partnership between wisdom of its rural people and skill of its professionals.” Such a strong and unmatched partnership became the cornerstone of Kaira District Cooperative Milk Union. Later, as other cooperative unions emerged in Gujarat with Kaira Union’s help, Dr Kurien brought them together to create the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd.
In the early days, an extraordinary partnership built the foundation for India’s future in dairying. The leadership, vision and wisdom of Tribhuvandas Patel was supported by the professionals on Dr Kurien’s team. Prominent amongst these was H.M. Dalaya, a dairy technologist who successfully converted buffalo milk into powder, refuting “expert” advice. Dalaya led innovative technology in the manufacture of cheese, butter, baby food and the other products that enabled the Amul brand to become the market leader. Later, Dr Michael Halse, a Harvard Business School graduate whose model of India’s food and agriculture sector paved the path for efficiencies in milk production, helped develop the institutional framework for the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and trained a cadre of highly committed and talented young officers.
Launched in 1970, Operation Flood is one of the world’s largest rural livelihood and development programmes. It has enabled dairy farmers to take control of their resources
Operation Flood, launched in 1970, remains one of the world’s largest rural livelihood and development programmes. It has enabled dairy farmers direct their own development, placing control of the resources they create in their own hands. A National Milk Grid links milk producers throughout India with consumers in over 700 towns and cities, reducing seasonal and regional price variations while ensuring that the producer gets fair market prices in a transparent manner on a regular basis. The bedrock of Operation Flood has been village milk producers’ cooperatives, which procure milk and provide inputs and services, making modern management and technology available to members.
The foundation of this mega programme was laid in October 1964 when the then Prime Minister Late Lal Bahadur Shastri visited Anand for the inauguration of Amul’s cattle feed factory. The Prime Minister recognised that Amul’s success rested on cooperation and in a letter to state chief ministers stressed the importance of replicating the Anand experiment in other parts of the country. Prime Minister Shastri said that “expecting to find a land of milk and honey” in Kaira District, he observed that it was “as dry as other parts of our country” and dairy animals no better than elsewhere but “certainly not as fine as the Murrah buffalo of Punjab.” Recognising that what had made the difference was the cooperative, he set into motion the creation of NDDB to support viable and profitable dairying in rural India through cooperatives and farmer controlled organisations. The inspiration was and remains the Amul model.
The two-village-and-247-litre-milk-a-day cooperative has grown into a state milk marketing federation that today handles 21 million litres a day, a contribution of 3.6 million farmers. Registering a growth of an impressive 17 per cent, GCMMF (Amul) has recorded a turnover of Rs 38,542 crore in the financial year gone by making it one of the top ten global dairy companies. This global brand, associated with quality dairy products, is owned not by any corporate entity or any big business house, but these lakhs of farmers, some as small as contributing only half to one litre a day, but an equal partner in the stakes of the cooperative.
Adoption of the Amul model has created a unique dairy cooperative model in the country comprising more than 16 million milk producers in a network of 1,86,000 village milk societies affiliated to 222 district milk unions and 28 state milk federations. Big as it may appear, this network manages less than 15 per cent of the country’s total milk production. There are some other stark contradictions too: our genuine claim of being the top producer gets soured by our position near the bottom in cattle productivity; high per capita availability does not address the prevalence of malnourishment; most milk still reaches the market unprocessed despite a huge dairy industry. Moreover, we have been basking only in the glory of Amul. No other milk federation or cooperative institution has reached anywhere near Amul’s position in the dairy industry. Part of the reason could also be the distortion which has set in the cooperatives on account of growing political and bureaucratic control. Besides being against the principles of cooperation, such interference tends to compromise the interests of the farmers.
India’s journey of global ascendency in milk production is not simply about producing more and managing the produce efficiently despite the immense complexities of the country, but about equity, empowerment, gender balance, and above all uncompromising ethics.
How did dairy farming become a White Revolution? The emphasis, the limelight and the focus were put not on the commodity but on the milk producers, the vast number of landless, marginal and small farmers. More important than developing the product, the brand or the market became the development and empowerment of these people. The instruments of development were entrusted to these very people. Good management followed, and we now boast of the most creative farming cooperative leadership model in the global food system. Almost 70 percent of the consumer price of dairy products flows back to the primary producer that is the farmer, and this has been made possible only because the farmers were encouraged to manage and guide their own destiny aided by committed professionals.
The philosophy and approach adopted in the Operation Flood programme is pretty well-suited for replication in the fruits and vegetables sector to realise its immense potential. As in milk, the sector could do with streamlining from the perspective of farmers who too are producing crops of a highly perishable nature, and to some extent like milk require harvesting on a regular basis. This makes them vulnerable in the markets which are predominantly trader driven. Operation Flood never ignored the consumer, but the key drivers of the project were the economic and social empowerment of the milk producer. In fact, the project managed to create a fine long-term balance between the producers and consumers—we rarely witness extreme volatility in milk prices. Operation Flood was designed and implemented in such a way as to increase rural incomes through a judicious transfer of urban consumers’ money to the rural sector.
The four strong pillars supporting the edifice of the milk cooperatives illustrated by the GCMMF and acted out in Operation Flood and the subsequent National Dairy Plan programmes are: (a) ownership of farmers; (b) management by democratically chosen representatives of farmers; (c) operation by trained professionals; and above all, (d) culture and values of responsiveness and trust. As in mature corporate businesses, the ownership and professional management roles have been clearly separated, thus keeping vested interests at bay. This explains why and how Amul is not just a dairy brand but has grown into a living vibrant movement giving the dairy sector a successful model of economic freedom and hope.
The important recent government initiative is to establish the Rs 11,000 crore Dairy Infrastructure Development Fund (DIDF) and the Rs 15,000 crore Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Fund (AHIDF) to address the requirements of capital for processing and marketing infrastructure
The important recent initiatives of the government of establishment of the Rs 11,000 crore Dairy Infrastructure Development Fund (DIDF) and the Rs 15,000 crore Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Fund (AHIDF) should be able to address the immense requirements of capital for processing and marketing infrastructure which continues to be grossly inadequate. Dairy indeed would become an attractive and competitive vocation.
The title sequence of the 1976 iconic and award winning feature film Manthan begins, “500,000 farmers of Gujarat present….” Not only has Manthan been the first crowdfunded movie in the country, it is unique that its producers, and hence owners, are a staggeringly large number of landless, small and marginal farmers, each having contributed a princely sum of Rs 2. Truckloads of these farmers would throng to cinema halls in Gujarat to watch this movie for they were the proud producers—it was their story. The movie featured the country’s best of film and theatre talent in the form of Shyam Benegal, director and Vijay Tendulkar, the writer; the cast comprised the accomplished Girish Karnad, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri and several other brilliant names of the era. The story, set against the backdrop of the White Revolution, is the near life fictionalised account of the struggle and fighting spirit of dairy farmers who transcend not only the exploitation of middlemen but also the societal and their own prejudices to create an empowered cooperative. Manthan means churning; churning of milk separates water and gives us butter. In the movie, and in the inspiring story of the farmers of Gujarat, milk symbolically churns the rural society and washes away prejudices of caste, class, creed, religion and gender; and in the process creates an empowered community. The character of Bhola, a maverick and feisty Dalit, played by Naseeruddin Shah sums up all when he urges disbelieving and sceptical fellow villagers to take things in their own hands with a passionate appeal, “Yeh sisoty aapdi cheh.” This society belongs to us.