Millions of stars, each not big enough to count individually, define our galaxy, aptly named the Milky Way. The half-litre poly pack of milk that millions in India open every day is, similarly, the output of innumerable dairy farmers and their bovines. The unique system of some 47.5 million litres of daily milk collection from over 16 million producers for processing and sale by our dairy cooperatives — which even some private dairies have gone on to adopt — is a Milky Way that India has successfully demonstrated to the world. It has also enabled the country become the world’s largest milk producer at 176.3 million tonnes in 2017-18 and a per capita availability of 375 grams per day, three time more than what it was till the late 1970s.

Against this backdrop, it is surprising to see the Indian dairy industry today seeking more to guard its elevated status than aiming for the stars. What stops it from becoming the global leader in dairy product markets? Why should Amul, a national pride and respected global brand, express insecurity in the face of imagined competition? It is true that the European Union and the US convert their milk surpluses into mounds of powder and butter oil, creating distortions in global trade and artificially depressing prices. Also, huge quantities are dumped under the garb of humanitarian aid. In a scenario where global markets are manipulated and the countries responsible follow protectionist policies back home, a direct exposure of our farmers to international competition can be both risky and unfair.

But India should consider itself lucky not being a “price taker” like New Zealand, which has only the export market and where it is at the mercy of “price-makers”, viz. the US and EU. The sheer size of our domestic market — which will only increase with rising incomes and high elasticity of demand for milk and milk products — should ensure that we aren’t relegated to being a “price-taker”. There is no likelihood, nor should the government contemplate, of allowing easy/concessional tariff access to foreign dairy products under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or any other bilateral or multilateral agreement.

However, that should not make the Indian dairy industry complacent. It should, indeed, look at capturing global markets, rather than being concerned about the mere possibility of others’ dairy products entering our markets.

To start with, the focus should shift from quantity to quality. It is a fact that we cannot now boast of excellence in quality of our products: One could call it unfair, but they do not meet the sanitary and phytosanitary standards required for exporting to developed markets. Secondly, just as Italy gave the world pizzas, why cannot we offer something that is different and new? The launch pad for navigating the next Milky Way, in fact, actually exists within the country — in the form of traditional dairy products.

Dairy India had, in 2015, estimated the Indian market for milk and dairy products — in terms of the value paid by consumers — at Rs 5,26,403.6 crore or $ 81 billion. The biggest component of it was liquid milk, at

Rs 3,03,983.6 crore or 58%. The second largest segment, at Rs 81,000 crore, was desiccated/coagulated products such as khoa, chhanna and paneer that are used as base material for a variety of indigenous sweets and preparations. This was followed by other products (mostly comprising traditional sweets, at Rs 72,000 crore), followed by ghee (Rs 40,200 crore) and curd/ yoghurt/ lassi/chhach (Rs 12,420 crore). On the other hand, the value of milk powders (Rs 13,000 crore), table butter (Rs 2,450 crore) and cheese/edible casein (Rs 1,350 crore) was way below that of indigenous products.

Organised dairies have, no doubt, made considerable inroads into liquid milk marketing. Almost a third of the milk Indian consumers currently purchase is in branded pouches; that will only increase with the neighbourhood dudhia fading into oblivion. Dairies have also grabbed a significant share of the market — to the extent these are not made at home — for curd and ghee. But they have left the most profitable segment of indigenous milk sweets and preparations to the unorganised sector, which thrives on low capital base, generally disregards food standards and cares little for good manufacturing practices.

The major strength of traditional dairy products lies in their mass appeal. The market as well as operating margins for these far exceeds that of butter, cheese, powder, whiteners and other western dairy products. Their industrial-scale production presents a unique opportunity to organised dairies. In this age of globalisation, projecting ethnic foods and culture beyond their narrow regional confines makes good business strategy. There is enormous scope to influence even overseas consumer behaviour through exotic product offerings.

The Indian dairy industry can increasingly explore the use of modern processing techniques for producing traditional milk products — whether continuous khoa-making machines or homogenisation to improve their texture. Candy-processing equipment could, likewise, work well for making burfis and pedas, just as tofu manufacturing lines simulating production of paneer. Even imported food processing machinery, with some modifications, can be used to produce gulabjamun and rasgulla. Lassi, it is known, is good for digestion and also induces sleep, which has to do with an amino acid called tryptophan that is converted in the body to serotonin, given as medication for insomnia. In a world full of tensions, anything that can help one to sleep and makes for a great nightcap drink is a blessing. What we need are smart marketing gurus to sell these sweet dreams globally.

Horlicks made a great business of putting over two-third of malt solids in milk and selling it at the same price as milk solids. Our halwais have done better. They add 30-40% sugar to khoa and channa that already contain 30-50% water and sell these at prices higher than milk solids. No wonder, they make more money than any organised dairy. Globally, the value added to milk through product manufacture and marketing is at least twice the price paid to the dairy farmer. This applies even more in the case of halwais. While western dairy products (with the exception of malted milk and chocolates) add about 50% value to milk, the traditional Indian dairy products add 200%.

The message is loud and clear: The fusion of technological processes and products, blending the best of ethnic and modern foods, and a cross-cultural approach to product development is the way forward. The possibilities for them are endless in the wake of expanding globalisation. Our dairies should view the world as their marketplace and turn to ethnic foods for even creating a new class of products with exotic appeal. How about a gulabjamun soufflé or a kulfi mousse for dessert?