The government creamery shared a building with a struggling young dairy cooperative—the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union Ltd. The cooperative’s chairman, Tribhuvandas Patel, frequently asked the young man to help when their processing equipment broke down. Tired of patching ancient equipment, the young man had recommended the cooperative buy a new plant from Larsen & Toubro. To his surprise—even shock—Tribhuvandas Patel raised the money.

Just as the equipment was scheduled to arrive, the young man was released from his government service and was preparing to depart for a lucrativeposition in Bombay. Learning of this, Tribhuvandas went to meet him and asked why he was going to leave just when the plant he had recommended was about to arrive—with no one to oversee it being set up and commissioned. He offered the young man a salary of Rs 500 per month, a princely sum, to stay until the plant was running. And the young man, Verghese Kurien, stayed.

As he took on the responsibility of running the cooperative, and as they began to achieve some success, he was struck by the fact that India, despite its long history of dairying and with milk and milk products important to the diet, was struggling unsuccessfully to meet domestic demand. And his diagnosis was simple: there was no organised processing and marketing of milk and milk products. As a consequence, producers received uneconomic prices for milk and had no incentive to either increase their herds or to improve productivity. What was happening in major milk producing areas like Punjab and Gujarat was the sale of the best milk animals to urban dairies in Delhi and Bombay where they were destroyed after a single lactation, depleting the gene pool of high producing cows and buffalo.

What was the Dream? It was the creation of an Indian Dairy Product Marketing Board, a quasi-government agency that would carry out a variety of functions:

  • To assume responsibility for marketing the entire production of all the approved dairy product factories in India.
  • To pay for these dairy products on the basis of quality as determined by grading.
  • To arrange for the storage, transport, distribution and marketing of these dairy products throughout India, probably through common brand names.
  • To channelise, through this Board, the imports of foreign dairy products into India.
  • To pool the supply of the various types of dairy products and to fix the purchase and selling price of dairy products.
  • To regulate the production of different types of dairy products according to the market needs.
  • To enforce quality standards.
  • To carry out propaganda for increased consumption of milk and milk products.

“Such a Board can also perform the following additional functions:

  • To finance research.
  • To assist in the planning and execution of new dairy projects.
  • To arrange for the import of dairy machinery and to maintain servicing and spare parts facilities to all its component dairy factories.
  • To initiate the progressive manufacture of dairy machinery in India.
  • To maintain close liaison between the industry and the National Dairy Research Institute.
  • To generally protect the legitimate interests of the dairy industry.
  • To arrange for technical training in the field of dairying.”

The Marketing Board was to be governed by a small board composed of government officials, cooperative and private dairy representatives.

Twelve years later, inspired by having seen, fi rst hand, the success of the Kaira cooperative, India’s Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, created the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and asked Dr Kurien to be its chief executive. Dr Kurien accepted on the condition that he would not receive any money from the government—not even the nominal Rs1 and that the headquarters remain in Anand. He wanted to remain an employee of India’s milk producers and he wanted the organisation to remain close to them and their needs.

The Prime Minister offered the newlyestablished NDDB a blank cheque to operate. But, as Dr Kurien later said, “the cheque bounced”. He and his colleagues also learned that state governments were loath to transfer their responsibilities to NDDB and farmer cooperatives.

As was to become his trademark, Dr Kurien transformed a challenge into an opportunity. In the mid-1960s, Europe had begun to amass huge dairy surpluses: mountains of milk powder and lakes of butter oil. As Dr Kurien later said, “It was only a matter of time until some kindly European gentleman decided that the best way to dispose of these surpluses was to gift them to feed the poor people of India.” This would have destroyed the fledgling dairy cooperative movement that was just beginning to make progress.

Dr Kurien entered into negotiations with the World Food Program to receive and monetise donated dairy commodities, blending these with domestic milk to meet demand, but to do so at prices that maintained the farm gate price for milk. The proceeds provided the corpus of funds for investment in promotion of dairy cooperatives, building of plants, financing research and creating marketing networks.

In order to receive and monetise commodities, Dr Kurien recommended and the Government of India created the Indian Dairy Corporation, a government entity that handled these functions and made the loans that financed dairy development in India. While Dr Kurien chaired both the Indian Dairy Corporation (IDC) and the NDDB, they remained separate entities: one a government corporation, the other a registered society and public trust. This operating tandem of state and non-governmental bodies continued until both were merged in 19874 into a single National Dairy Development Board which was constituted as an Institution of National Importance, accountable to India’s Parliament.

A brief mention of the results: In 1972 when Operation Flood began, India’s milk production was effectively stagnant. Per capita access of milk and milk products for India’s 565 million people was approximately 106 grams per day. In 2013-14, per capita access had reached 305 grams per day for India’s 1.2 billion people—in other words almost three times the milk for more than two times the number of people. While Operation Flood, NDDB and Dr Kurien were not the sole reason for this, there is every reason to believe that these were important factors in India’s becoming the world’s largest milk producer.

The spearhead in Dr Kurien’s vision was the dairy cooperative movement. With Tribhuvandas Patel, Dr Kurien had transformed the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union from a two-cooperative operation to the major dairy product brand name in India. “Amul” became synonymous with quality butter and cheese and is now, as it has been for decades, the dominant dairy brand in India. As Kaira succeeded, cooperators from other parts of Gujarat came, saw and believed. They sought and received help from the Kaira Union to build similar cooperative structures in their own districts. The success inspired the formation of the NDDB and, today, resulted in a movement that incorporates 15 million members of 155,000 cooperatives that, collectively, procure about 12 million tonnes of milk annually. The farm gate income of cooperative members was approximately PPP$7 billion.

In his spare time, Dr Kurien designed and oversaw a programme that replicated Operation Flood’s principles with oilseeds and edible oil. He transformed a modest donation of butter oil from the United States into a fruit and vegetable programme that dominates both the fresh and frozen produce market in Delhi and beyond.

An innovative programme in rural electrification gained donor and other support, but finally was killed by the Central Electricity Authority, quite possibly because an efficient and economical power generation, transmission and distribution system would pose a threat to the deeply-entrenched state electricity boards. He founded and chaired a number of institutions including the Institute of Rural Management, Anand and the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation—India’s largest food business.

Dr Kurien served on the board of the Reserve Bank of India, as Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Agricultural University, asChairman of the Gujarat State Electricity Board among others. In virtually all of these positions he led changes that improved performance, strengthened capacity and positively affected the organisational culture.

Verghese Kurien was what is called a transformational leader. While there is little doubt that he was charismatic, he recognised as early as his 1957 dream, that enduring change requires more than attractive qualities in a leader. He focused on hiring the right people—people with the right values and with a commitment to their nation and its rural people; building systems to work effectively, economically and with integrity; and creating a culture of a shared vision and shared values. As the General Manager of Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union, he employed more PhDs than any food business in India at that time.

To meet the challenge of building the NDDB, he brought some of his finest talent from Kaira District Union; employed a group of exceptional young people whose intelligence, talents and energy was yoked to a deeply-held commitment to serving their nation and its rural people; and he reached an agreement with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to provide a team of experts in all the fields important to the fledgling NDDB.

Key to the FAO agreement was the Chief of Party, Dr Michael Halse, a British national with a doctorate from the Harvard Business School, a brilliant man who enjoyed Dr Kurien’s full trust and respect. Led by Dr Kurien, this team of experienced Amul employees, young Turks and the FAO team designed, initiated and managed what can probably be described as the single largest and most effective rural development programme of the time, and possibly all time.

Verghese Kurien was fond of citing Jean Monet who famously said, “I had only one good idea”. That idea, of course, was a European Economic Union. Dr Kurien’s good idea was to empower India’s rural people through cooperatives, to build economic enterprises that were owned by producers and whose benefits went to producers and who were governed, democratically, by producers. The core underlying principle is one that ended many of Kurien’s speeches:

“India’s biggest asset is its people; true development must mean development of these people, by placing in their hands the instruments of development.”

A clear vision, talented committed people, strong values all contributed to the success of NDDB, Operation Flood and its other programmes to help transform rural India. But these, alone do not explain the scale and quality of what was achieved. And they do not recognise the magnitude of the obstacles faced: politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, foreign states, investor-owned firms that dealt in milk were among the many who opposed Dr Kurien and attempted to derail NDDB’s efforts.

The enormous impact of Operation Flood alone, an impact that raised the quality of life of rural producers while ensuring a supply of milk and milk products—once rationed in India—to consumers throughout the country, requires that we carefully examine the reasons for success and how Verghese Kurien orchestrated these over time.

Even for those who worked with Dr Kurien over the decades, it is difficult to distill what it was—what qualities and abilities— that raised him head and shoulders above so many contemporaries. There is little doubt that he was a man of genuine brilliance. There is no doubt that he possessed charisma, a charisma that needed no translation across borders within and beyond India. He could be charming, disarming even those who were prepared to battle him.

He was an exceptional judge of people, their strengths and weaknesses. And he knew how to exploit the strengths and, depending on the circumstance, either minimise or take advantage of the weaknesses. Although he appeared to do so effortlessly, he mastered his subjects, whether it was technology, economics, organisational and human resources business or marketing.

He possessed extraordinary discipline. If he was genuinely angry, he hid it behind a smile. But he could use staged anger to move people and events. All of these qualities were anchored by two that were far more important: absolute personal and professional integrity and a commitment to improve the quality of life of India’s rural producers.

Dr Kurien’s intelligence was exceptional. He had the analytical abilities of the finest chess players, identifying the interplay of a wide variety of complex factors and both anticipating as well as making moves that advanced NDDB’s goals. In the early 1980s, the Illustrated Weekly—then India’s leading weekly magazine— published articles that condemned NDDB’s work. Two primary criticisms were levied. The first criticism was that the dairy cooperatives were dominated by kulak castes, entrenching their social, political and economic power.

The second criticism—one that was grounded in academic and quasi-academic work in and beyond India—was that NDDB’s Operation Flood was creating dependency on foreign dairy products. Both arguments were demonstrably false and easily contradicted with a wide range of factual information. However, opponents of the dairy cooperative movement and of Dr Kurien, raised a series of questions in India’s Parliament.

The Minister of Agriculture was still nursing a grievance because NDDB had refused to build a dairy in his constituency. Answering the questions, he said that he would appoint an inquiry committee to look into the charges, doing so in a way that lent them credibility. The consequence was growing concern and criticism of Dr Kurien and Operation Flood amongst India’s intellectual elite.

The day that the Minister announced an inquiry, every NDDB officer resigned, stating that if the Agriculture Minister lacked confidence in their work, there was no point in continuing. The tide of public opinion turned and while a commission was appointed, it was chaired by a senior civil servant who was a long-time admirer of Dr Kurien.

The terms of reference focused on removing obstacles to Operation Flood, not attacking its performance. Seeing a unique opportunity to take advantage of the commission, Dr Kurien encouraged a final report that recommended the merger of the NDDB with the Indian Dairy Corporation in a new institution of national importance, a statutory body that reported to Parliament. That recommendation led to the NDDB Act which, in turn, enhanced the autonomy, scope and the authority of NDDB.

If you, the reader, were to have walked into Dr Kurien’s office, you would have seen a relatively small man sitting behind a large, wooden desk. He was not a handsome man, but you would have been drawn to his eyes, his mischievous smile and, once he began to speak, by his exceptional ability to present the essence of complex ideas.

You would have been struck by the size of the office which was very large, by the larger than life photograph of Mount Everest signed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay. Unless you arrived toward the end of his working day, you would have been struck by the absence of paper and files. The desk was clean. But during the day a parade of people would come, sit and discuss, answer probing questions, share their perspectives and their knowledge. And it was from behind that desk that Dr Kurien would communicate the decisions that shaped the present and future of India’s dairying.

One element of Dr Kurien’s charisma was his wonderful story-telling ability, an ability that was enriched by his marvelous sense of humour, much of it selfdeprecatory. Even for those who heard a story multiple times, it was always entertaining and always instructive. As he told these stories, there would be a twinkle in his eyes and a mischievous smile. But there was inevitably a moral to the tale, a lesson to be learned.

Peter Block, the distinguished author, consultant, and speaker in the areas of organisation development, community building, and civic engagement has observed that every organisation needs its own “mythology”, a set of stories that become central to the culture of that organisation. Dr Kurien was the master of creating those stories, stories that inevitably centered on NDDB’s core values.

There was also Dr Kurien’s charm. When he so chose, he could find ways to draw even the most hostile of his adversaries into a conversation, a dialogue that at the end, if they did not change their position, they at least left feeling that they had been well-heard and with respect for Dr Kurien as a man and for NDDB as an institution.

Within a few months of starting NDDB’s project to restructure oilseed and edible oil production, processing and marketing, the Inspector General of one of the donor organisations raised a set of concerns. He informed the NDDB that contrary to their written agreements, he intended to conduct an audit. Dr Kurien responded that not only was the agreement binding on both parties, but the proposed audit could conceivably put the donor’s Inspector General in conflict with India’s Comptroller and Auditor General a situation he, as Chairman of the NDDB, could not allow. This standoff threatened to end the project.

As both sides girded their loins for battle, the head of the donor agency made a trip to India and, given the size and importance of the project, he included a visit to NDDB’s headquarters on his itinerary. Breaking the ice by sharing the fact that both he and the donor agency chief were graduates of the same university, Dr Kurien orchestrated a brilliant presentation of the project, its achievements and its potential to transform India from a major edible oil importer to a self-reliant producer of oilseeds and oil. Tours of the NDDB, a village cooperative and a chocolate factory sealed the deal. It was no longer a standoff but a mutual effort to find an acceptable solution.

One had only to watch Dr Kurien speak to a group—large or small—to witness the charisma and the charm, all enhanced by his marvelous story-telling ability. Whether it was a small group of visitors to the NDDB headquarters, or the audiences at the award of the Carnegie- Watelier Peace Prize or the World Food Prize, Dr Kurien would finish to standing ovations. Like a practiced actor, he always knew his lines. He kept his speeches short—never more than 15 minutes. He used humor to reach the audience, but his message was always delivered from the heart. The transparent sincerity, the commitment and the passion all were obvious and resonated with the audience.

An example of Dr Kurien’s personal charm was his relationship with one of India’s Agriculture Ministers. The Minister was a very senior figure in the Government and a very powerful politician. He spoke only Hindi, a language in which Dr Kurien could only manage the rudiments. Despite this language barrier, they met frequently and the Minister became a great admirer and supporter of Dr Kurien. But Dr Kurien’s charm was not just reserved for those he needed to back NDDB’s work. In fact, whenever an Agriculture Minister, or other senior elected official or administrator left office, whether he had been a friend or a foe, Dr Kurien would call on them to pay his respects and thank them for their service to the country’s rural producers.

One last dimension of Dr Kurien’s charisma would have been intuited by anyone who visited the NDDB headquarters during the 1980s and 1990s. Wherever the visitor would go, he would have sensed that people were working as though Dr Kurien were looking over their shoulder. He was literally and figuratively the NDDB’s superego. People did not work hard out of fear, they worked to achieve all they could in order to meet the expectations of a man they held in the highest regard.

Unlike many charismatic leaders, Dr Kurien recognised that there were two critical ingredients to a successful organisation: people and systems. When he served as the general manager of the Kaira District Milk Producers Union, he had more PhDs working for him than much larger organisations in India. Those PhDs were not only people who brought a range of expertise and talent, they were people who were attracted by Dr Kurien’s vision and motivated by his drive to serve the milk producer members of the cooperative. And that was the secret.

He was able to select those individuals for whom purpose was more important than perks. The NDDB was headquartered in a small town in Gujarat, hundreds of miles from major cities like Mumbai. Before Dr Kurien’s creation of a wonderful school, Anandalaya, Anand offered few opportunities for good children’s education, few of the diversions, the high quality medical facilities or the cultural riches offered by cities. Yet, Dr Kurien was able to attract, select and motivate exceptional people whose individual and collective contributions transformed Dr Kurien’s dream into a reality.

At the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union, Dr Kurien was part of a “troika” composed of Tribhuvandas Patel, the Chairman, H M Dalaya and himself. Tribhuvandas was, as Dr Kurien often said, his “guru”. A product of the freedom movement, a follower of Gandhi, a political associate of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister, and of Morarajibhai Desai, later India’s Prime Minister, Tribhuvandas was committed to cooperation and was a man of unimpeachable integrity.

Despite serving as chairman of the Gujarat Congress Committee, as a Member of Parliament, and as chairman of one of the country’s most successful cooperatives, Tribhuvandas Patel lived in a very modest home and had few possessions. When, on his retirement as chairman, the farmers of Kaira District raised a very large sum to present him as a token of their appreciation, he immediately created a foundation to provide health services to the women and girls of the District.

Dr Kurien often sought the advice and counsel of Tribhuvandas Patel, whether on how to negotiate the perils and pitfalls of political negotiations, or how to work with and lead a farmer organisation. And whenever Tribhuvandas felt the need to do so, he would go to Dr Kurien’s office and offer him advice.

The second member of the troika was H M Dalaya. Born into a dairy farming family in Karachi, H M Dalaya studied dairy technology in the United States and was one of the very first people that Dr Kurien asked to work with him in Anand. The key to building a successful dairy cooperative was conserving milk from the flush season months and recombining it during the lean season. The predominant dairy animal in Kaira District was the buffalo. All of the experts, Indian and foreign, said that it would be impossible to make milk powder from buffalo milk. H M Dalaya proved them wrong.

He was the technological genius behind all of the breakthroughs that kept Amul at the forefront of dairy enterprises in India. With the forming of the NDDB, Dalaya became the general manager of Amul. On retirement, he moved to NDDB where he continued to provide support to the scientific and technical challenges that had to be met for India to become a major dairying nation.

Once NDDB was established, one of the first and key people that Dr Kurien attracted was Michael Halse, a British national who was a member of the faculty of the newly-established Centre for Management in Agriculture and Cooperatives at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Michael Halse was a student of Professor Ray Goldberg of the Harvard Business School which, in turn, had partnered with IIMA.

Dr Halse was a brilliant scholar whose interests centered on agriculture and specifically dairying. When he and Dr Kurien met, they immediately recognised a set of strong common interests and values. Both were men who, in the words of George Bernard Shaw did not “…see things; and [ask] ’Why?’ …but … Dream things that never were; and… say ‘Why not?’”—Dr Halse brought, in addition, the ability to conceptualise, to lead and to do the detailed analysis and planning that would raise the probabilities of success.

Their collaboration not only resulted in Operation Flood, but also in a major programme to transform India’s oilseed and edible oil industry, the creation of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, the architecture of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation and a host of other initiatives. But even more important, Dr Halse worked with a group of extraordinary young officers, inspiring them by his example and helping to hone and expand their skills. These same officers had a profound influence on the evolution of NDDB and through NDDB on the transformation of dairying in India.

One of those young officers was Dr Ram Prakash Aneja who was employed to work in NDDB’s planning cell. Dr Aneja was young, but experienced. He had graduated with the first batch of dairy technology students from India’s National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI) and had worked for the Delhi Milk Scheme (DMS) as well as two private firms, Horlicks and Hindustan Lever.

A man of extraordinary intelligence, ability and wisdom, Dr Aneja worked with Dr Halse in developing the plans for Operation Flood (OF). OF-I was grounded in large part on Dr Halse’s10 work on conversion efficiencies which led to the conclusion that dairying should and could be based on crop residues and byproducts. Eighteen milksheds were selected as the pioneering effort to adapt and extend the “Anand Pattern” of dairy development.

NDDB recruited, trained and fielded “spearhead teams” of young veterinarians, agriculturists, engineers and others to educate rural producers, promote and form cooperatives, and then link their production to processing units and, ultimately metro markets. The whole effort was financed by the monetisation of donated milk powder and butter oil, recombined with locally-produced milk for sale in major metro markets. The simple yet elegant approach achieved such success that Operation Flood II was designed to expand the effort to 160 milksheds, covering a substantial portion of India’s milk production potential.

Dr Aneja, who worked closely with Dr Halse and a multi-disciplinary planning team, subsequently went on to a very distinguished tenure as Secretary (Chief Executive) and then Co-Managing Director of NDDB. Along with Dr Halse, he helped to conceive and design the Institute of Rural Management and served for a time both on the faculty and as Director of the Institute. After retiring from NDDB he has worked with distinction as an international dairy consultant and educator.

Shailendra Kumar was another early NDDB employee who Dr Kurien hired in the NDDB’s very early days. He had a master’s degree in mathematics, but was the son of a man who had devoted his life to improving the lives of India’s rural people. Shailendra Kumar was another young officer who worked with and learned from Dr Halse. In time he became the top assistant to Dr Kurien, a role he filled in ways that went far beyond the usual job description.

He was a listening post, a contributor, a judge of character and the type of person who would honestly express his views, even when they differed from his Chairman’s. Shaitendra also participated in developing the Oilseeds and Edible Oil Project and was its first director, ensuring that a strong foundation was built for future success. The project and his role were the subject of a Harvard Case Study.

Shailendra Kumar moved on from the oilseeds activity to pioneer the formation of NDDB’s first Human Resource Department and, while continuing to play his role as a confidante and advisor to Dr Kurien, continued his efforts to infuse the NDDB with new ideas, new methods and new people, but new people who shared the fundamental values that were central to the NDDB.

In 1974, India hosted the XIX International Dairy Conference in New Delhi. The focus was “dairying as an instrument of change”. For NDDB and India’s dairy cooperatives, this was both a tribute to what they had achieved, and also a great challenge. The organisation of an international conference with participants from all over the world including the advanced dairying nations involved an enormous amount of preparation. One or two persons were employed to coordinate the event, but as it drew nearer it was clear that someone far more capable, energetic and organised was needed to take command.

A few years earlier, as general manager of the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union, Dr Kurien had employed a young nutritionist, Dr (Miss) Amrita Patel. As the cooperative’s first woman officer, she had worked at a new feed plant in Kanjari, a few miles north of Anand. Her excellence as an officer there led Dr Kurien to offer her a job with the NDDB. When he realised that he needed someone to take hold of the International Dairy Conference, he recognised she was the one who could do it. And she did.

When NDDB created an office in New Delhi to oversee projects in the Region and liaise with the Government of India and State Governments, Dr Kurien selected Dr Amrita Patel. Quiet, thoughtful, a fine judge of people and with an almost unlimited capacity for work, Dr Amrita Patel became an Executive Director of the NDDB, then its co-Managing Director and, ultimately, Dr Kurien’s successor as Chairman.

As a member of the team, Dr Amrita Patel would often play the “good cop” to Dr Kurien’s “bad cop”. She, along with Shailendra Kumar, Dr Aneja and a handful of others, was a trusted colleague of Dr Kurien. Like the others, he trusted her because he knew that she would always speak her mind, even if it involved disagreeing with him. And, once a decision was reached, he knew that she would implement it—even if she had disagreed.

Along the way, among a telephone directory’s worth of responsibilities, she has served on the Board of the Reserve Bank of India and the National Bank for Rural and Agricultural Development, played the major role in founding and inspiring the Foundation for Ecological Security, on the board and Chair of the Institute of Rural Management, and as the Chair of the Charutar Arogya Mandal, a society that operates a Medical College, Hospital, Dentistry School, Nursing School and other institutions all focused on improving health in rural India.

As NDDB expanded, the number of officers grew to the point where many no longer had direct contact with Dr Kurien. But the culture was a powerful one emphasising commitment to India’s rural producers, absolute integrity and working hard and long enough to achieve excellence.

The outside observer of NDDB would have noticed an interesting initiation rite for new officers. Not long after someone had joined the NDDB, they would be given a very challenging task, a task that at first blush they would think was beyond their knowledge or ability. But, put into the situation, they could either sink or swim: more accurately they would either rise to the occasion and surprise themselves with their ability to do something they thought was too difficult, or they would conclude that the NDDB was not the right place for them. Many of those young officers who met the challenge would provide the core of a NDDB that had remarkable confidence in what they could and would achieve.

Dr Kurien saw a constellation of activities as interrelated and individually necessary but not sufficient to transform rural India. The centre of all these efforts was the Indian farmer and farm family. As Dr Kurien often said of India’s rural producers:

“…we have millions of our countrymen and women who have the courage, wisdom and energy to transform our nation, if only we give them that chance.”

He saw cooperatives as the chance for producers not to beg or ask for an opportunity to benefit from the resources they created, but to organise and demand those opportunities.

While the original efforts were concentrated on dairying, Dr Kurien recognised that oilseeds and edible oil were inextricably linked with dairying. Then, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wondered about why she received one rupee for a cauliflower that sold in Delhi for ten, he found ways to organise farmers around horticultural production. Seeing the relationship between electric power and rural agriculture—then, as now, energy in rural India was unreliable—he developed an approach to link village electric cooperatives to generation and transmission of energy. He made a long-term effort to waken India’s agricultural universities to the importance of research linked to producers and their needs, and the market with its demands.

Few if any have possessed Dr Kurien’s depth and breadth of knowledge of dairying, from genetics through the marketing of milk and milk products. When the NDDB entered oilseeds and edible oil, he not only mastered that subject, but was able to focus on the synergies, and minimise the competition between producing milk and edible oil.

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him to tackle fruits and vegetables, he added another commodity to his repertoire. His knowledge of the power sector was stimulated and enriched both by serving as Chairman of the Gujarat State Electricity Board and by his efforts to bring power under the cooperative wing. In all of these—and many other—to open their eyes to possibilities that they had never seen.

In the early days of developing NDDB’s fruit and vegetable project, Dr Kurien sat with the officer to whom he had given responsibility. “Tell me,” he said, “what do you think we will need to invest in this”. The officer said, “Sir, we aren’t at that point yet. We know that we will have to promote village cooperatives, develop transportation systems, build a very large processing centre near Delhi and then establish a retail system. But we aren’t yet ready to give you the numbers”.

Dr Kurien leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, mumbled a bit to himself, and then, with a twinkle in his eyes, said, “Well, I think we’re going to need about Rs 32 crores”. Months later, when the final budget had been developed, it came to just over that figure.

During the middle of the dispute with the donor over the oilseeds and edible oil project, a senior donor official arrived in Delhi. He had met Dr Kurien some years earlier and had some knowledge of him, his achievements and his ability to forcefully state his case. But he was deeply concerned with the reluctance to accept an audit by his agency’s inspector general. He expressed this concern in a discussion with a representative of one of NDDB’s partners in the project.

The representative pointed out that over the years, Dr Kurien had made a great many enemies. Those enemies would like nothing better than to accuse him of dishonesty. Even a fabricated accusation with a small degree of plausibility would do. Yet, while Dr Kurien had been accused of a great many things, no one had ever questioned his honesty. That honesty was unimpeachable. It was a personal honesty and a professional honesty. It was an honesty he demanded of all who worked with the NDDB. The donor official smiled and went home with the conviction that there was nothing awry in the project.

One of NDDB’s major achievements was modernising the milk business in India. One of the first elements of Operation Flood was the creation of the Delhi Mother Dairy and an expanding series of milk booths where customers could buy a token that would get them a half-litre of milk. Milk was brought from rural districts by tankers, processed, and then sent by tanker to the booths where large milk tanks were filled.

The opportunities to cheat were numerable. Dr Kurien set up a system where inspectors were given a list of booths every morning. They collected milk which was then tested in a central lab. If there was any adulteration, the person running the booth and the tanker driver were both fired. They weren’t warned. There were no second chances.

If an officer of the NDDB inflated a travel claim, he was dismissed. There were never any warnings, never any second chances. The rent-seeking that was found throughout India’s public sector was unheard of in NDDB. In the 1980s, when NDDB’s HR department carried out a climate survey, there was an unexpected response to the open-ended question as to why employees liked to work for NDDB: more than 40 per cent said that they liked working for NDDB because it was a “clean” organisation.

At the core of all that Dr Kurien did was the belief that unless rural India prospered, unless rural producers achieved their due place in the sun, there would never be durable economic growth nor an equitable society. He believed that there was a great deal of energy, wisdom and creativity in India’s villages that was largely ignored. Five year plans contrived in the “Bhavans”16 in Delhi and state capitals were prepared by bureaucrats and technocrats with little knowledge and less involvement of India’s rural people.

Dr Kurien’s strongly-held belief was that linking the skills of professionals and scientists with the energy and wisdom of rural producers was the only way in which real economic progress could be achieved.

In pursuing this Dream, Dr Kurien followed a set of basic principles and evolved an architecture, central to which was the partnership between cooperatives and government, a partnership in which he used the NDDB as convener, advocate and broker.


The first principle of Dr Kurien’s approach to dairy development could be summarised in his words: “It’s not about cows or milk, it’s about our rural producers.” The strategy was to benefit the women and men who raised India’s buffalo and cows. This involved:

  • No Bombay, no Anand. As simple as it is, much economic development has forgotten that markets are the key. Production seldom creates markets; markets do pull production. Dr Kurien believed that the first and foremost catalyst for increased production and then increased productivity was a stable, remunerative market.
  • Production by the masses, not mass production. To ensure that dairy development benefitted rural producers, the entire approach was geared to low capital, low energy dairying. The emphasis was on the landless, marginal and small farmers with one, two or three dairy animals. This required a cooperative system capable collecting small quantities of milk from large number of producers.
  • Feeding animals should not compete with feeding people. Recognizing that India’s land resources were limited and stretched to near capacity, the entire approach to feeding animal was focused on crop residues and byproducts along with natural herbage.
  • Cooperatives: Dr Kurien believed that the only way in which producers could gain control over the resources they created was to pool their production and their assets in a professionally-managed cooperative.

Underpinning these principles was the NDDB’s culture. In addition to honesty,professional and intellectual integrity, the NDDB was a “Learning Organisation”. Although NDDB was thorough in its planning, there was never the assumption that a plan was more than a set of best judgments about the future. If events questioned the plan, it was the events and not the plan that led to the next set of actions.

Planning was also focused not on predicting cause and effect, but rather articulating underlying principles and presenting a hypothesis which would be tested by implementation. In the early 1990s, Dr Kurien recognised that by adopting some of the World Bank’s appraisal methods in assessing loans from unions, they were imposing a planning regime that was contrary to the one that NDDB used in its own work. At that point Dr Kurien directed his officers to rethink the appraisal process to focus it on learning through doing, not committing to actions that might, in the end, prove ineffective.

But there was also an environment in which the dairy revolution would take place. It was here that Dr Kurien engineered a partnership with the Government of India and India’s State Governments. It was a partnership that was never an easy one. There were times when it was stretched to the breaking point. But it was essential to creating the conditions that allowed India’s dairy cooperatives the opportunity to survive, and then thrive.

Much that Dr Kurien negotiated with Government would be offensive to those who advocate the principles of the Washington Consensus. Yet the case could be made—and Dr Kurien frequently made the case in his speeches—that without these conditions, India would still be importing vast quantities of dairy commodities.

The first critical element was imports. It was Dr Kurien’s view that the large-scale import of dairy commodities, whether gifted or commercial, would toll the death knell of India’s growing dairy industry. It was, in fact, the growing mountains of powder and lakes of butter oil in Europe that led him to conceive of Operation Flood, a programme largely funded by the sale of gifted commodities.

To ensure that imports were used to support Indian dairying, Dr Kurien worked with the Government of India to create a public sector organisation, the Indian Dairy Corporation, which was given the sole authority to import dairy commodities into India. From its founding, until it was merged with NDDB in 1985, the Indian Dairy Corporation was the sole importer of dairy commodities into India. This ensured that commodities were monetised at prices that were consistent with farmgate milk prices.

It also restricted the import of dairy commodities from other parts of the world at prices that were lower than prices in India. As Dr Kurien often pointed out, much of the World’s dairy exports were subsidised with New Zealand being the only honorable exception. He felt that it was unfair and unrealistic to expect Indian dairy farmers to compete with these commodities. By protecting them, he helped ensure that when imports were liberalised, the Indian farmer was competitive with the rest of the world.

A second step that Dr Kurien took was to obtain agreement from the Government of India to licence dairy plants. This licensing did not permit establishment of a non-cooperative plant within the defined “milkshed” of a cooperative. This did not end competition for milk. The dominant players in most markets were local contractors and “dudhiyas”. These independent business people used personal relationships, convenience, some financing and considerable skill to enter into long-term relationships with milk producers. However, the licences did mean that the private sector was largely limited to the milksheds were firms like Nestle, Horlicks and others already operated, or to areas where cooperatives had not established dairies.

This protection from competition allowed some cooperatives to work through their teething stage to the point where they were able to compete with privately-held and investor-owned firms, including multinationals.

A third and somewhat less successful element was the establishment and enforcement of regulations for milk, milk products, feed, veterinary services and the like. Dr Kurien recognised that cooperatives had to expend money to achieve quality, whether in milk or milk products, their feed, or their services to farmers. To promote a level playing field, uniform regulations and enforcement were important. However, while significant progress was made in developing and issuing regulations covering a wide gambit of products and services, far less progress has been achieved in ensuring that these are uniformly enforced.

A fourth area was implementation of Operation Flood’s second and third phases. When Operation Flood was envisioned and planned during the late 1960s, the goal was to organise Anand Pattern cooperatives in 18 of India’s major milksheds. To implement this ambitious programme, NDDB employed large number of young officers.

Drawn from a variety of disciplines, these young officers were formed into “Spearhead Teams” and were responsible for visiting promising villages, establishing relationships, carrying out educational programmes and, where there was the desire, helping dairy farmers to form a cooperative. Over time, as the number of cooperatives grew, they were encouraged to work together to form a cooperative union, much like the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union Ltd.

Early in the implementation phase it became apparent that the programme was succeeding. Success led to the desire to expand. And so Operation Flood II was planned. Dr Kurien, Michael Halse, Dr Aneja and others considered the options. They concluded that if they were to continue using Spearhead Teams, it would be necessary to create an army of field staff and that all of the NDDB’s energy and effort would be consumed in the feeding, clothing and housing of this army.

The alternative was to work with and through the state governments. At that time, most states had a dairy development department or some similar agency. Working with the Government of India, NDDB encouraged the transformation of these departments into dairy development corporations. This was an attempt to insulate them from the political pressures to which a department was subject and to encourage the type of flexibility and rapid response that the NDDB embodied.

Many states complied and these state corporations were established. But they did not function as state-level dairy boards. In fact, for the most part they functionedin much the same way as had the departments from which they were formed. That led to rethinking and the suggestion, againwidely-adopted, that the corporations be transformed into state-level cooperative federations that would be responsive to their constituent unions, just as the unions were to their member cooperatives.

What the planning failed to recognise is that the bureaucratic culture of the original departments would continue, largely unmodified, through the corporations to the federations. Instead of state level bodies that were free of political and bureaucratic constraints and that were responsive to their constituents, highlypoliticised, bureaucratic, top-down cooperative federations controlled the fate of the dairy cooperatives in most states. One exception was the Gujarat State Milk Marketing Federation which, under Dr Kurien’s leadership, developed into India’s largest food business. Some, such as Karnataka, evolved into reasonably wellmanaged businesses. Others were ineffective and ineffectual.

A fourth area where NDDB played a role with both the Central and State Governments was cooperative law and regulation. India’s first cooperative law was enacted in 1904, largely in response to the civil unrest in rural areas resulting from exploitative, usurious lending. Through its various permutations, the law was expanded and refined. However, with Independence, it became even more oppressive. As Dr Kurien said:

“A cooperative system initiated by the British, organised by the Government and ruled by a Registrar was alien to our culture and our genius.

“It was therefore with great sorrow and distress that those of us who hoped to see the cooperatives bloom after Independence saw that while political power had been transferred, the approach to cooperation remained the same. While the number of cooperatives multiplied to every corner of the land, our leaders and officials paid scant heed to Gandhi’s words:” Cooperation, which is rooted in the soil, always succeeds,” he said. Rather, many Registrars of Cooperatives and their departments have seen it as their duty to uproot cooperatives that have sprung from our native soil; instead they have sought to spread cooperatives merely as extensions of their departments, cooperatives which were firmly rooted in the bureaucracy, a soil in which they might exist, but where they would never flourish. In so doing they ignored Gandhiji’s admonition that “that Government governs best which governs least.”

Dr Kurien invested a great deal of his time and energy in protecting the dairy cooperatives from the depredations and abuses of bureaucrats and their political masters. Each Operation Flood implementation MOU with state governments required elected boards, professional managers and the like. As often as not, these agreements were ignored. Tamil Nadu, for example, held cooperative elections after long intervals and then, with each change in the state government, “superseded” all of the boards, replacing them with “persons-in-charge”.

Dr Kurien again turned to the Government of India and began to lay the groundwork for an amendment to the Companies Act, making provision for producer companies that would operate on cooperative principles, but which would do so within a much less intrusive legal and regulatory environment. Modeling the approach on New Zealand’s, Dr Kurien began working toward this end in the mid-1980s. Though success was not achieved during his tenure as NDDB Chairman, Parliament ultimately did enact a Producer Companies Act.

In these and many other areas, Dr Kurien used, and sometime abused, India’s Central and state governments. He established close relationships and earned the respect of Prime Ministers beginning with Lal Bahadur Shastri. Morarji Desai, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee all applauded NDDB’s work, supported its initiatives and protected its autonomy. The same can be said of several ministers of agriculture, state chief ministers, senior bureaucrats and others. While they may have disagreed with Dr Kurien in some areas, they recognised that he had created a national asset and achieved far more for India’s rural producers than any other individual.

A comment on Michael Halse and the partnership of Dr Kurien and Dr Halse

 I met Mike Halse only toward the end of his tenure as FAO Chief of Party at NDDB. I was privileged to spend some time with him, including a couple of long evenings in which we shared some spiritual inspiration. I also had the good fortune to meet Mike again when he visited Anand in the mid-1990s. But it was only as I spent more time with NDDB that I began to realise the importance of Mike Halse to the very foundations of NDDB.

In his note, Prof Tushaar Shah speaks of Dr Kurien as the architect and Michael Halse as the structural engineer. This is an apt metaphor. The vision of dairying as an instrument of change is presented in Dr Kurien’s 1955 paper. He remained true to that vision throughout his life: his courage, his tenacity and his integrity all combined to achieve much of what he had dreamed of when he fi rst worked as General Manager of the Kaira District Union. But it is equally clear that Mike Halse and Dr Kurien, as a team, each contributed to the detail, to the plans, to the methods and to the values that distinguished NDDB. The notes by other participants in Operation Flood included in this section are fi lled with the many contributions that Mike Halse brought to the partnership. Some of these were methods—he brought the analytical tools of economics into full use in the design of Operation Flood. But more important were the values: do a little extra for the client; give a new person challenges that exceed what they believe they can do; when required, work 48 hours fl at out to get the job done and done well; see each challenge as an opportunity; where there is a need, build an institution to meet that need; and believe in the farmer, her wisdom, her ability.

In the end, though they brought very different and complementary talents to the enterprise. Dr Kurien and Mike Halse shared the belief that the producer should be placed in command of the resources she creates, and that only through democratic cooperatives would the rural poor fi nd their place in the Indian sun.

The core of that Dream and those values continues. But sadly, in many parts of India the Dream has been hijacked by politicians and bureaucrats. There is a sad, even tragic irony in political parties creating slates of candidates to turn for the leadership of a cooperative. A cooperative is an economic enterprise, not a political forum. Those who seek office in a cooperative for personal and political gain can only tarnish the vision that Dr Kurien and Michael Halse cherished and gave their lives to fulfill.

Let me turn last to the greatest contribution of both men: the young men and women who they inspired, trained and let loose to do good. It has been my privilege to know several of these people, some of whom have contributed notes of remembrance that speak of Mike Halse and Dr Kurien, but which often understate or even ignore their own wonderful contributions, both to NDDB and beyond.

Dr Kurien and Mike Halse recognised the quality of young people and selected extraordinary young men and women to work with NDDB. They were and are people of great ability and integrity, people whose blood, sweat, toil and tears helped to build NDDB and the dairy cooperative movement. One can only hope that today’s younger generation in India—and elsewhere in the world—will produce people of their calibre and commitment. They helped to make rural India a far better place and inspired their peers around the world.