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Mainstream, VOL LX No 3, New Delhi, January 8, 2022

The Legacy of Dr. Verghese Kurien on the Current Development Discourses: Reflections on Kerala and Beyond | Chathukulam, Joseph and Joseph

Friday 7 January 2022, by Jos Chathukulam, Manasi Joseph, T M Joseph

Introduction

November 26, 2021 marked the birth centenary of Dr. Verghese Kurien, the legendary ‘Milkman of India’, who catapulted India to be the world’s largest milk producer. Dr. Kurien, the architect of India’s White Revolution once said that “India’s place in the Sun will come from the partnership between wisdom of its rural people and skills of its professionals.” [1] Then on another occasion Dr. Kurien said “India needs to show an honest face, a kind face, a human face - and not an arrogant face as the powerful nations of today (do)” [2]. This vision and philosophy of Dr. Kurien is of increased relevance even today, especially at a time when there are various reports of agrarian distress due to ‘defective polices’ targeting country’s agricultural and cooperative sectors. Dr. Kurien, who pioneered the cooperative dairy movement in India played an instrument role in empowering the ‘ordinary milkman’ and milkmaid’ and the dairy framers at the grassroot level, and made them key players in India’s struggle for economic development and progress. Dr. Kurien’s vision was that of a dairying that could help transform the lives of India’s rural people and he saw cooperatives as a catalyst in building dairy farming in India and thereby to empower India’s rural people. Dr Kurien is credited with creating a model of business — ‘Professional Rural Management’ in which a cooperative like AMUL focused on staying profitable by treating its millions of dairy farmers as stakeholders. Dr. Kurien introduced a sense of professionalism to the dairy management and spearheaded a ‘Professional Rural Management’ supported by a ‘robust supply chain, modern technology and production systems, marketing, organization building and a strategic vision. Dr. Kurien’s ‘Professional Rural Management’ ushered in a socio-economic revolution among rural farmers in the country. Under this ‘Professional Rural Management’, the rural producers are empowered to take charge of their own destiny in which they sell products directly to the consumers without the interference of any middlemen. Today, India desperately needs more and more ‘Professional Rural Management’ institutions and visionaries like Dr. Kurien to augment rural income of farmers through sustainable livelihoods. Dr. Kurien built a democratic structure of farmer-controlled cooperatives to bring about economic and social development in rural areas.

Drawing inspiration from the success of AMUL built by Dr. Kurien, many cooperatives flourished across the country. Kerala Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, one of India’s biggest dairy co-operatives, popularly known as MILMA, is one among them. Kerala is one of the few states that has promoted collective farming by cooperatives and community networks and notable among them is Kudumbashree, one of the largest women collectives in India. Today, Kerala has one of the most vibrant networks of cooperatives that function across sectors including agriculture, dairy, industry and services like banks, colleges and even hospitals. The spread and growth of cooperatives in different sectors that have played a pivotal role in the financial growth and overall development of the state. While Dr. Kurien has always courageously resisted political and bureaucratic interference in the management of cooperatives, in Kerala, cooperatives were groomed as a ‘child of politics’. The hegemony of political parties and its contribution in building a robust cooperative movement makes it more complicated. Nevertheless, cooperatives have played a significant role in the social and infrastructure development of the state is a fact. While many see the formation of a Union Ministry of Cooperation as a move to exercise more political and bureaucratic control over cooperatives (Jose and Chathukulam, 2021), Dr. Kurien’s birth centenary is an opportune time to reflect upon his vision of professional rural management to kickstart a dialogue on development in Kerala. As an organization committed to the cause of rural transformation, Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala paid a homage to Dr. Verghese Kurien and hosted a one-day national webinar titled "TheLegacy of Dr. Verghese Kurien on the Current Development Discourses: Reflections on Kerala and Beyond”,in joint collaboration with Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), the brain child of Dr Kurien. The webinar took place on December 18, 2021 at 6 pm. H. S. Shylendra [3] was the lead panellist. V. Venkatakrishnan [4], Joseph Tharamangalam [5], V. Mathew Kurian [6], P.P. Balan [7], and John S Moolakkattu [8], also served as the panellists. TM Joseph [9] was the moderator. Joseph in his introductory remarks noted that Dr. Verghese Kurien, the proud son of Kerala, who later went on to become the ‘Milkman of India’, played an instrumental role in transforming the rural lives by spearheading the ‘White Revolution’ in the country.

 Dr Verghese Kurien as a Social Democrat and an Eminent Institution Builder 

H. S. Shylendra, the lead panellist, who had exposure to the working style of Dr. Verghese Kurien said that Dr. Kurien’s personal and professional strengths did make qualitative and quantitative differences in various sectors and projects he worked. Shylendra described Dr. Kurien as a ‘man of conviction and courage’ who dedicated his entire life, for nearly 60 years, and stood for the cause of the farmers and their institutions. He recalled how Dr. Kurien fought with everybody right from top politicians to bureaucrats to a variety of vested interests to protect the interests of poor farmers. He further added that Dr. Kurien was a ‘man of integrity and honesty’ and how through all his works, projects and institutions the legendary visionary ensured that the ‘integrity’ and ‘honesty’ was incorporated and imbibed in letter and spirit in every sense. Shylendra described Dr Kurien as a ‘social democrat’ who believed in mixed economy, role of state, role of market, civil society especially the community and farmers. He opined that Dr. Kurien didn’t consider himself as a revolutionary but as a ‘reformist’ who believed in bringing in systematic changes through proper interventions that can deliver sustainable outcomes. He observed that Dr. Kurien was a great institution-builder and manager par excellence’. He said that Dr. Kurien who has built a lot of institutions wanted people who have commitment to head the institutions and not bureaucrats who come and go. He also noted that Dr. Kurien who build great institutions (like AMUL and IRMA) always wanted them to be institutions of excellence, character and integrity. For Dr. Kurien, institutions must strive for excellence and professionalism in every aspect, said Shylendra. Speaking about the development programmes in agriculture, he said that Operation Flood by Dr. Kurien stands out in terms of size and uniqueness as one of the biggest dairy or rural development programme. Though there were earlier criticisms that Dr. Kurien made the innovation using foreign aid, Shylendra said that foreign aid here was for development investment for continuous returns. He also added that Dr. Kurien emphasized on cooperatives as an essential instrument to implement any development project and professional management and technology go side by side. Though there were criticisms, Operation Flood has made contributions to make India self -reliant in milk production. Shylendra said that Dr. Kurien was of the opinion that the lessons of Operation Flood hold significance for other sectors in agriculture.

For Dr. Kurien, operation flood was much more than milk and in the case of development, it was all about ensuring the broader goals of empowerment, participation, equity and inclusion and he believed that cooperatives have the potential to address the challenges in these areas, said Shylendra. For Dr. Kurien, cooperatives stood for equity and democracy, he added. He also said that Dr. Kurien’s life and experience holds unique lessons even in the context of limited achievements our reformist mixed economy. Speaking of Dr. Kurien’s contribution in the realm of dairy development in Kerala, Shylendra noted that the ‘Operation Flood’, the biggest dairy development programme helmed by Dr. Kurien also laid the foundation for the growth of Kerala Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, one of India’s biggest dairy co-operatives, now popularly known as MILMA. Though Dr. Kurien at one point suggested to dismantle MILMA as he felt that it was not playing required role in terms of marketing and even prevented it from entering into a joint venture with National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) fearing that it would compromise on the principles of cooperatives, Shylendra suggested that it was because of the push that Dr. Kurien made in the initial phases, the MILMA has emerged into a vibrant cooperative that we see today.

Dr Verghese Kurien: The Visionary Who Pioneered Rural Management 

 V. Venkatakrishnan, who also had the opportunity to study Dr. Verghese Kurien at very close quarters said that creating a new discipline called ‘Rural Management’ was one of the significant contributions made by Dr. Kurien. He spoke about how Dr. Kurien offered a helping hand to the cocoa producers in the Central Arecanut and Cocoa Marketing and Processing Co-operative Limited (CAMPCO) in Karnataka. He pointed out that when the cocoa producers in CAMPCO were exploited by the Multi-National Companies (MNCs) by denying them appropriate price for their produces, Dr Kurien came forward to procure their produces and by doing so he made a significant contribution by protecting the interest of farmers in Kerala and Karnataka. Venkatakrishnan added that some amount of credit for India producing chocolates goes to Dr. Kurien. He also talked about the contributions of notable alumni [10] of Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) towards the development in the country with special reference to Kerala. He opined that whatever institutions Dr. Kurien has built has contributed towards the developments of the country and added that the credit for making India a leader in the Rural Management goes to Dr. Kurien. Venkatakrishnan also recalled how Dr. Kurien brought a lot of work ethics including punctuality and how it inspired him to emulate the work ethics upheld by the architect of India’s White Revolution. Regarding the politicization of cooperatives, Venkatakrishnan opined that wherever power and finances are there, politicians have taken interest there. He also added that the original purpose of dairy farming was not to address food insecurity.

Can the AMUL Model Revive the Agriculture Sector in Kerala?

Joseph Tharamangalam raised an important question in his discussion on whether AMUL or Kurien Model experience offer a viable model for sustainable agriculture and food production in Kerala. Tharamangalam argued that Kurien model points to a viable path to recover and rescue Kerala’s agriculture and make it more sustainable, guaranteeing food security and beyond that a degree of food sovereignty. He noted that Kerala is one of the food deficit state in India and opined that food insecurity in Kerala is not a myth but a reality. Tharamangalam stated that Kerala’s agriculture has been not just in decline but deeply affected by a series of endless crisis. He observed that Kerala does not have the option to move into an industrialized agriculture on the model of developed countries or corporate agriculture promoted by Indian government due to several reasons including fragile ecosystem and remains more vulnerable to climate change.Meanwhile, Tharamangalam stated Kerala does have a path to develop sustainable agriculture if it adopts a sustainable model like what Dr. Kurien offered. He opined that If we can combine two things, the wisdom of the rural people with skills of professional people as suggested by Dr. Kurien, then sustainable model of food production can be developed in the state. Tharamangalam concluded with the suggestion that Kerala should embark on a path of ‘decentralized self-managing agriculture system’, which are ecologically sustainable to revive its dying agriculture sector and preserve its biodiversity. He also cautioned that it if anyone in Kerala intends to adopt such sustainable models, they should do it immediately since there is not much time left as the agriculture in the state is on a path to irreversible decline.

Dr. Verghese Kurien as a Model Social Entrepreneur and his Influence on Kerala
Mathew Kurian talked about the uniqueness of Dr. Verghese Kurien in the light of his meritorious works, influence of Dr. Kurien and his experiments on the society and economy of Kerala and how far the situation in Kerala demands thoughts of visionaries like Dr. Kurien. He hailed Dr. Verghese Kurien as a ‘successful cooperative man’ who through his strenuous efforts could prove that ‘community and cooperation’ could be an alternative model in the place of failed dominant economic ideologies like competitive markets and coercive state. He noted that since the time of Joseph A Schumpeter how innovations were required for the growth and development (Schumpeter, 1911) and argued that while in a capitalist environment innovation is made by private business entrepreneurs, Dr. Kurien as a ‘model social entrepreneur’ brought so much innovations from the perspective of a social entrepreneur not for his personal profit but for betterment of ordinary people, the villagers. He even went on to call the Dr. Kurien as a true Gandhian and drew parallels between Gandhian concept of Gram Swaraj and Dr. Kurien’s dream [11] of empowerment of rural people. He also noted that the ‘doyen of dairy cooperative movement in India’ believed that democratization would be successful when there would be economic democracy in the villages and from that perspective Dr. Kurien can be treated as a true Gandhian. He also recalled that Dr. Kurien was a good strategist and a successful manager from the people’s point of view. He further argued that much like John Kenneth Galbraith’s Concept of ‘Countervailing Power’ (Galbraith, 1952), Dr. Kurien developed a ‘Countervailing Market Power’ of his own in the form of cooperatives.

Speaking about the influence of Dr. Kurien on Kerala, he pointed about the presence Anand pattern of milk cooperative societies in the state. He also noted that the influence of Dr. Kurien can be seen in the establishment of Rubber Producers Societies (RPSs). He observed that though from a sociological point of view in term of education and health Kerala is on par with developed countries, the economy of state is very weak and it remains vulnerable in terms of total production and employment generation. He opined that when we think about rediscovering ‘Kerala model of development’, the Anand’s experience can surely serve as an inspiration for us. He concluded with the argument that Kerala economy needs a revival and that requires a serious examination and added that whatever lessons we can learn from across the world and various parts of India especially the lessons from experiments in Anand may be of great help.

Life and Teachings of Dr. Verghese Kurien: Lessons for Panchayati Raj Institutions 

P. P. Balan talked about the valuable lessons Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and its stakeholders can learn from the life and teachings of Dr. Verghese Kurien. Balan noted that the ‘Milkman of India’ was well aware of the central role people has to play in the development and argued that Dr. Kurien firmly believed that India’s biggest is its people and for him true development meant development of the people by placing in their hands the instruments of development. He opined that the role of local self-government institutions is much and many sided so is the case of cooperatives and pointed out the values and goals commonly shared by PRIs and cooperatives. Balan said that the architect of ‘White Revolution’ in India’ focused on building a system with major thrust on shared vision of values and suggested that these very aspects are reflected in the case of PRIs. He observed that Dr. Kurien always stressed on the ‘strengthening of masses’ and ‘production by masses’ and not on mass production. Balan said that the PRIs can learn a valuable lesson from Dr. Kurien’s emphasis on the strengthening of the masses. Speaking about the significant role played by cooperatives in improving and sustaining the livelihoods of rural communities, Balan said that Dr. Kurien concentrated on livelihood and poverty eradication and thereby economic development and added that similarly, the main focus areas of Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP) prepared by Panchayats also envisages overall development of human beings through economic development. He also stated that Dr. Kurien gave emphasis to target oriented cost -effective activities and focused on innovations and added that likewise PRIs should also concentrate on the same especially in the case of innovations. He noted that the concept of professionalism was highly valued by the ‘doyen of dairy cooperative movements in India’ and the PRIs should seriously take up the discipline of ‘professionalism’ in their realm. Balan also opined that PRIs should recruit more and more highly qualified and skilled youth in their workforce as Dr. Kurien did. He said that PRIs and cooperatives should work hand in hand to accomplish Dr. Kurien’s dream of empowering rural masses.

Dr. Verghese Kurien: A Man Wedded to Professionalism and Cooperatives

John S Moolakkattu pointed out that the concept of ‘professionalism’ was close to Dr Kurien’s heart and added that one of the major reasons for the failure of cooperatives or the failure to replicate the success of the AMUL model was due to lack of ‘professionalism’. Speaking on why Kerala can’t replicate AMUL model? Moolakkattu quoted Dr Kurien’s words “Kerala has several Kuriens but no Tribhuvandas Patel”. He said that what Dr. Kurien meant was right and added that the political class in the state definitely lacks, vision, integrity, sincerity and ability to acknowledge the importance of ‘professionalism’ and this was the major reason why many producer cooperatives failed to take off in the state. Moolakkattu opined that the producer cooperatives should infuse a certain degree of professionalism to survive and argued that the cooperatives in the state lack professionalism. He described Dr. Kurien as a “man wedded to cooperatives, not a Gandhian but a person who believed in Nehruvian principles and who believed in the power of cooperatives.” Meanwhile, Moolakkattu added that though Dr. Kurien can be described as a Gandhian in terms of his commitment to truth, honesty, straight forwardness and as a strong proponent of self-reliance, he cannot be viewed as a Gandhian to the core. Similarly, though Dr. Kurien emphasized on decentralized production by the masses on Gandhian lines, the dairy he envisaged was a centralized dairy and not a labour-intensive dairy but a capital-intensive dairy, said Moolakkattu. He also said that Dr. Kurien was close to Nehru-Patel development paradigm rather than Gandhi.

After the panel discussion, participants and the panellists had a fruitful discussion. A M Jose [12] pointed out about the lack of professionalism in Kerala and suggested that cooperative management should be taught at school level and the culture of economic democracy should be imbibed in the minds of students from a young age. Jos Chathukulam [13] identified that Panchayats, cooperatives, Kudumbashree and political parties should be thoroughly professionalised. Chathukulam pointed out that Gram Panchayats in Kerala suffer from professionalism deficit and it should recruit highly qualified people as the GP staff like in the case of Panchayat Development Officers (PDOs) in Karnataka. The Karnataka Public Service Commission (KPSC) has been conducting PDO recruitment tests since 2010. In Kerala there is Kerala Administrative Service (KAS), and candidates (with professional background) who clears the exams can be appointed as Panchayat Development Officers (PDOs) to instil the spirit of professionalism. Devendra Babu [14] opined that we failed to make use of the white revolution in addressing rural poverty and nutritional deficiency. When he asked about the politicization of cooperatives, Shylendra replied that though Dr. Kurien did not have any issue for having political affiliations, the architect of India’s White Revolution clearly stated that one cannot use dairy for political purposes and decision should be purely based on the needs of federation and dairies. Shylendra said that Dr. Kurien had ring fenced the decision making from external political influence.

Rajendra Kumar [15] said that Dr. Kurien as a man of amazing wisdom, talent and spirit. He also said that value addition of agricultural produce is the need of the hour in Kerala. Philip Sabu [16] said that the success of Dr Kurien and AMUL lies in harnessing the power of technology, harnessing the power of people and harnessing the power of professionalism.

(Authors: Jos Chathukulam is former Professor, Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralisation, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru and currently the Director of Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala. Email address: joschathukulam[at]gmail.com 

T M Joseph is Hon. Professor, B S Bhargava Chair on Decentralized Governance and Development, CRM, Kottayam, Kerala, India and currently the Principal, Mount Carmel College, Karukadom, Kothamangalam, Kerala, India. Email address: tmjnirmalacollege[at]gmail.com

Manasi Joseph is a Research Associate at Centre for Rural Management (CRM). Email address: manasijoseph[at]gmail.com )

References

  • ET Bureau (2012, September 10). Amul Builder Verghese Kurien’s Best Quotes and Pictures from Economic Times Archives, TheEconomic Times.
  • Galbraith, John Kenneth (1952). American Capitalism, the Concept of Countervailing Power, Boston, Houghton Mifflin; Cambridge: Riverside Press.
  • Jose, M A., and Chathukulam, Jos. (2021, August 19). Co-op ministry: Democratising development? Deccan Herald.
  • Kurien, Verghese. (2005). I Too Had a Dream, New Delhi: Lotus Collection, Roli Books.
  • Schumpeter, J.A. (1911). The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credits, Interest, and the Business Cycle, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[1The Economic Times, September 10, 2012.

[2The Economic Times, September 10, 2012.

[3Professor, Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), Gujarat, India.

[4Professor and Dean, KIIT School of Rural Management, deemed to be University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India.

[5Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax, Canada.

[6Hon. Joint Director, Dr. K. N. Raj Centre, Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU), Kottayam, Kerala, India.

[7Former Director of KILA & Senior Consultant, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Govt. of India, New Delhi, India.

[8Professor Central University of Kerala, Kasaragod, Kerala, India & Chief Editor, Gandhi Marg.

[9Hon. Professor, B S Bhargava Chair on Decentralized Governance and Development, CRM, Kottayam, Kerala, India & Principal, Mount Carmel College, Karukadom, Kothamangalam, Kerala, India

[10V Vivekanandan who heads the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS) is a distinguished alumnus of IRMA. He is popularly known as the ‘Kurien of Fisheries’ for championing the cause of small and artisanal fishermen.

[11Kurien,Verghese (2005)

[12Professor, Amity School of Economics, Amity University Haryana, Gurugram, and Former Professor, Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur, Kerala.

[13Former Professor, Sri. Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralization, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru, India and currently the Director, Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala, India.

[14Honorary Professor, Karnataka State Rural Development and Panchayat Raj University, Gadag, Karnataka, and formerly Professor of Economics, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru.

[15Former Dean, College of Dairy Technology, Mannuthy, Thrissur at Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University.

[16Former Professor, Kerala Agriculture University, Thrissur, Kerala, India.

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