- He helped push India’s milk production to 127.9 million tonnes in 2011-12
In the paradoxical light that past events reveal themselves to us, two facts stand out. One, Verghese Kurien, father of the White Revolution, was as distant as possible from a certain ideal currently preferred. As The Economist noted wryly in its obituary, “He was born a Christian, became an atheist, ate beef, and liked a drink—but not milk. In fact, he actively disliked it.” And he spent all his working life in Gujarat—a different kind of laboratory then. Two, by the revisionist understanding we have of our revolutions, it turns out the white one too may have done its share of harm. Focusing on productivity and volumes, like the green one, it probably overdid the interbreeding with Jerseys and Holsteins and brought native breeds to a perilous pass—with the attendant health debates on A1 versus A2 milk. But these may be indulgences of luxury. Back in those ship-to-mouth days, the astonishingly effective movement he led changed the lives of millions of dairy farmers and took India from a milk-deficient nation to one of the world’s largest producers of milk.
Kurien was no farmer’s son. Born in 1921 to an affluent Syrian Christian family in Calicut—his father was a civil surgeon in British Cochin—he did Physics (from Loyola), a bachelor’s in mechanical and a training stint at Tata, before heading off to the US on government scholarship. Once back, his forced tryst with milk began as an officer in the dairy division in Kaira district, Gujarat. Here, he found the farmers being exploited by milk distributors, and the entire region in the control of a shrewd businessman (if you haven’t yet seen the film Manthan, do so). Inspired by Tribhuvandas Patel, who was trying to unite the farmers into cooperatives, Kurien left his job and joined forces with him. The Kaira spirit spilled over to the Anand district—which gave us Amul, India’s most recognisable brand. ‘Operation Flood’ brought employment, income, credit, nutrition, education, health, gender/caste parity and grassroots democracy.
“More than milk production, Dr Kurien had a deep understanding of the rural areas and his focus was on how to remove poverty,” says Dr R.S. Khanna, Kurien’s long-time colleague and trusted lieutenant at NDDB (National Dairy Development Board). “That is why he set up the cooperatives with the farmers at the centre of the structure. He also did not tolerate any corruption.”
His vision built institutions like the NDDB that replicated the Anand model across India. The now-ubiquitous Mother Dairy came in 1974. In between, there were also gentle debates with Golwalkar and the Shankaracharya—but then, those were gentler days.