Untold Tales of Verghese Kurien
By
Sharad Bailur
Dr Verghese Kurien, my boss at the National Dairy Development Board, was not a modest man. He had much to be immodest about. A great raconteur, his stories of how it all happened were leavened with a faint self-deprecation that came across as though he was pulling the listener's leg. Only later it would turn out that he was all the time telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I found this, to my cost, when three events occurred. First the visit of the Chairman of the Pakistan Dairy Board and then that of the Agriculture Minister of Kyrghyzstan and lastly of Mr. HD Deve Gowda in his capacity as Prime Minister. Kurien talked about his friendship with the Royal Family of the Netherlands and with Queen Beatrix, who had presented him with a chess set made of ebony and ivory, in particular, with authority and affection. He was not name-dropping. That was just how it had been. From Jawaharlal Nehru down through the pages of history, both Indian and foreign, the world leaders whom he had met, or more importantly who had come to Anand to meet him, was legion.

When Verghese Kurien finished up with an Engineering degree from Madras he was picked up by Tata Steel to be one their Probationay Officers. Word soon leaked out that a Director on the Board of the Tatas, John Mathai (later to be Finance Minister of India) was Kurien’s uncle. Kurien had won his way through to the job strictly on merit, but this new development made things awkward because overnight a new deference had sprung up around him. He talked with his uncle who tried to dissuade him from resigning. But resign he did.

Around the same time the Government of India announced scholarships for students wishing to take up courses in Dairy Engineering in the United States. Kurien applied for the scholarship on the strength of his Engineering background and got it. When he landed in the US he realised he had an opportunity in a loophole that the Government of India had missed. The loophole was that the Government of India had no control over what he actually studied. They had given the money to the University that had offered him a seat. He could do what he wanted with it – so long as he returned to India armed with his new education. Kurien, who had applied to the University of Pittsburg, asked to have his subjects changed from Dairy Engineering to Metallurgy and Nuclear Science. His ambition was to become India’s first atomic bomb maker. He got his degree in both and returned to India. At that point if he had asked to meet Jawaharlal Nehru (who was quietly mulling over how to make atom bombs for India in any case, and was in touch with Home Bhabha), he would have been there far ahead of Anil Kakodkar or R. Chidambaram.

In the event, it turned out Kurien had signed a bond to serve at any facility named by the Government on his return from the US. The bond was enforced and Kurien was sent to work at the Government Creamery in Anand, where he sat cooling his heels doing virtually nothing except watching the cobwebs grow on the ancient machinery that was lying in its godown.

Across the road he observed the controlled chaos of a dairy co-operative headed by a gentleman called Tribhuvandas Patel that had a battle on its hands with the then big dairy in Anand – Polsons. Polsons was an invented, appropriately “imported” name acquired by a Parsi genteman who ran a milk products unit in Anand. They had a tinning facility and turned out butter in tins. I recall poking my head between my father’s arms as he opened a tin of Polsons only to have it squirt right into my eye. Polsons had a deal with the Milk Commissioner of Bombay that he would supply milk to Bombay – and that it would be a monopoly. Kurien would go across and talk to the Cooperative officials and it turned out they had a tough time selling their milk in Bombay because of the restriction by the Milk Commissioner there. They were compelled to sell to Polsons who would then sell it to Bombay. Worse nobody at the Cooperative knew English. Would Kurien please go to Bombay on their behalf and talk to the Commissioner? Kurien obliged and got the monopoly clause rescinded on the condition that he could demonstrate that the milk sent by the cooperative would not spoil on the journey from Anand to Mumbai by train. So two cans packed in ice blocks and gunny sacked were transported to Bombay by the 11.30 pm Gujarat Mail from Anand to be presented to the Commissioner. The train reaches Bombay at 5.30 am (even today) and the cans were shown and tested before his august presence at 6 am at his office at Goregaon. Challenge surmounted, the flow of milk to Bombay started.

But then cows and buffaloes are not always obliging animals. The flow of milk ebbs in summer and picks up once the rains start and stays through the winter to taper off toward the onset of the next summer. And there lay a problem that the Polsons decided they could exploit. Polsons who had a New Zealander for their Manager went to Bombay to tell the Commissioner that he should only accept a fixed total quantity of milk throughout the year – after all people don’t drink more milk in winter and less in summer! That meant that the milk from the cooperative that ebbed and flowed would be faced with a problem it could not control. Its milk would go waste in winter and be inadequate in summer. No reasoning would move the commissioner. The cooperative, and their representative Kurien, came back disappointed. What Kurien did on his journey back is not known but by the time he was back in Anand, he had a plan.

He opened up the godown of the Government Creamery and pulled out the old butter churner and milk powdering equipment. It had seen better days, much better days – during the First World War in Mesopotamia! It needed very careful handling and repairing. By the time he had finished with it, it was in working condition even if haltingly. He offered it to the Cooperative provided they could get the permission of the Government of India to use the old machinery. Kurien was sent to Delhi to persuade the people in the Ministry of Food and Agricuture. Some persuading later, he returned armed with the permission. Butter making started and for the first time butter from the Kaira District Milk Producers’ Cooperative Limited (KDMPCL) was sold in Bombay. Not too many people touched it, even with a bargepole sterilised or otherwise; they were still enamoured by the “imported” Polson name, as was my own father. But at least the overflow of milk problem had been dealt with – for the time being.

Unfortunately success often leads to bigger problems and the Cooperative was getting the first taste of growing pains. Since members sold milk to their coop at a price no less than the market price, the output started to pick up. The Milk Commissioner remonstrated. Kurien said, “We cannot put stoppers on the udders of my cows!” and the problem continued. That was when Tribhubandas had a new idea. Why not import an entire new dairy from Holland? Question: Who would set it up? Of course there was Kurien. But he was no dairy engineer! So what next? Kurien had a tentative possibility that would require him to go to Bombay. There he bumped into an old friend from his Pittsburg days: H. M Dalaya. Dalaya was at a loose end in India having lost all his lands and property to the throes of Partition. And he was a qualified Dairy Engineer from Pittsburg. Would he be willing to come to Anand to have a look? The machinery had arrived. Dalaya agreed.

Between Dalaya and Kurien and a bit of local turner/fitter help they erected the dairy that would thenceforth turn out butter. The coop decided it would have to have a new name. Between Dalaya and Kurien they came up with AMUL meaning Anand Milk Union Limited. It also stood for “Priceless”. And it was from these rather disparate threads that the true story of the success of Amul, and of Dr. Kurien started. Polsons withered away and died a natural death. A bust of its owner still adorns the library of the National Dairy Development Board presented to it by his son.

By the time Kurien started to work for Amul, the total output of milk per year for the whole of India was estimated at a woeful 7 million tonnes. Woeful, because, as it turns out, India is the only non-white milk drinking nation in the world. We drink an enormous amount of milk and use it in products. The demand was enormous. The supply was microscopic by comparison. There lay the problem and there lay the opportunity.

Amul then decided to make baby food. Who were the experts? Ask them. Nestle. So Kurien was sent out to Switzerland to meet with Nestle to seek a collaboration to make baby milk powder. He was brusquely turned away with the remark: “The air in India is so badly contaminated with microbes, it is not possible to make baby food in India.” When he returned empty handed, he was asked if he and his colleagues could make baby food without collaboration. They agreed to give it a try. And they succeeded. Amul baby food rapidly gained a foothold in the market place. It was then that Nestle took notice and their Chairman came over to visit Amul. He was shown around the dairy with elaborate courtesy and then offered lunch. It was then that he apologised. He then sought Amul’s help in marketing Nestle products. Amul turned down the request after consideration. They wanted to make their own.

As late as 1969/70 baby food was to be had in Bombay only if you were prepared to commit murder for it. That soon changed because in 1964 Lal Bahadur Shastri had taken a hand. He visited Anand and stayed the night with a local farmer discussing the problems of the farmers of Gujarat with them. Next morning he told Kurien he wanted him to replicate the Amul and later the GCMMF pattern on an all India basis. Saying is one thing doing is another. For six months nothing happened because there was no money forthcoming from the Government of India. But Dr. Kurien and his colleagues read the papers and magazines. They were watching with care the mountain of butter and milk powder that was growing uncontrolled in the European Union. They went to the Government to seek permission to persuade the EU to gift the milk and powder to India since they, in any case, had no where to sell it. The EU obliged and the saga of the National Dairy Development Board and Operation Flood that eventually has been responsible for increasing the output of milk from a bare 7 million tonnes per annum to 140 million tonnes plus today started. That makes India the world’s biggest producer of milk with the US being the next biggest, producing around 75 million tonnes.

One of Dr Kurien’s off the cuff remarks continues to resound in my memory: “There are always opportunities floating by. Grab them – all of them. You can drop them later if they don’t turn out well.” Yes, Sir! And you will live in our memory and in the memory of all those who had the great good fortune to work under you.