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Remembering India's Milk Man

File photo of Dr Verghese Kurien
File photo of Dr Verghese Kurien

When I first met Dr Verghese Kurien (26.11.1921--9-9.2012) as part of my job in 1980, he was already well-known all over the world for what he had achieved in the dairy sector, especially through Operation Flood, while I was just beginning my career as a journalist with UNI, the news agency.

I was posted in Baroda, which was close to Anand, the headquarters of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), the small Gujarat town that was his home since 1949.
 
What struck me at our first meeting was the way he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable and the patience he showed, sparing all the time that I needed to get inputs for the first of many stories that I did on Operation Flood.
 
His ground floor office at NDDB said a lot about the man, tastefully furnished. There was no waiting area for visitors and if at all there was some waiting to do before I was called in, it was in the room of his executive assistant of those days, Arvind Gupta.
 
I remember one meeting, during which his staff informed him that a dignitary had arrived for his meeting with him.
 
Clearly, the person who had arrived was important enough for the staff to interrupt him, but Dr Kurien just gestured, as if to say, "Let him wait till I finish this meeting."
 
I offered to leave, and meet him some other time, but he would have none of it, telling me in his own way that, having agreed to meet me, I was an equally important visitor for him.
 
His staff reminded him at least twice after that about the waiting visitor, and mind you there was no place to hang about, except in the corridor outside. But Dr Kurien went on to ask for tea for me, and it was only when I had finished that he finally got up to see me out. 
 
The next visitor was ushered in as I was leaving, and Dr Kurien casually introduced me, saying, "Sonny, this is His Excellency Mr ....., the Ambassador of (a European country)". The point to note is that the country was one of those helping him to set up the Institute of Rural Management (IRMA) at Anand with a generous grant.
 
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Dr Kurien loved talking about his work and his mission. He talked with an accent he must have picked up during his studies abroad, but the Malayali in him came through clearly (though I never heard him speak in Malayalam). His eyes sparkled as he talked about his run-ins with politicians in Delhi and elsewhere, and there were quite a few of those in the 1980s. 
 
He also talked about a lot about how he became a dairy engineer and landed up in Anand. He would light up when he talked about how he and Amul took on the multi-nationals in the dairy sector.
 
I enjoyed meeting and talking with him, and he made time for me whenever possible. The trip from Baroda to Anand, sometimes in state transport buses, was not always comfortable, but he made sure I had eaten, and he almost always asked his office to arrange for transport for me back to Baroda. Many of the other officials at NDDB were also helpful.
 
Of course, NDDB rules did not permit a vehicle to be sent just to ferry me, but there were always cars going to Baroda (the nearest airport) with important visitors to the organization, and his staff found me a place in one of those. That is how I got my first few rides in foreign cars (I can never quite forget my first ride in a Peugeot) and that is how I met some very interesting people, including an American who spoke excellent Malayalam.
 
Over the next year or two, Dr Kurien realised how eager I, a young journalist, was to find interesting topics to write on, and he must also have seen the impact the stories UNI carried had in the national media. He would suggest story ideas and alert me about important visitors to Anand, who could be interviewed. That was a time when there were no private television channels, and news agencies like UNI had unmatched reach.
 
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He then probably realised that it was not possible for me to rush to Anand at short notice, and would just tell me that if I landed up at the Baroda airport about an hour before the departure of the Mumbai flight, I could meet these dignitaries. And then, in a conspiratorial tone, he would add, "I have not talked to you, and you have not heard this from me".
 
I turned up at the VIP lounge of the airport to meet one such dignitary after he had tipped me off. As soon as he saw me, he exclaimed, "What are you doing here?" And then, turning to the visitor, he said, "These journalists...they land up everywhere...Anyway, now that is here, why don't you talk to him."
 
NDDB received scores of VIP visitors every year, from Presidents and Prime Ministers to royalty and top officials from the multilateral institutions. Dr Kurien was completely at ease with them, never in awe of any of them. He was quite aware of his achievements and his own place in India's modern history.
 
Dr Kurien was proud of NDDB and its beautiful campus and everything on the premises. I was talking to him one day near one of the immaculately manicured lawns on the campus when he spotted one of the NDDB employees walk on the grass, obviously taking a short-cut to wherever he was headed. 
 
"Why don't you give the grass a chance to grow?" he admonished him. The speed with which the guy got off the grass was impressive, and I am sure he has never walked on grass again.
 
He also had a mischievous sense of humour. Once Sam Pitroda, with whom I had struck up a friendship, and Jairam Ramesh had turned up in Anand for a presentation on the Technology Missions.
 
As Pitroda was talking to some other people, Dr Kurien suddenly turned to me and said, "Tell your friend he needs to take a hair-cut," referring to Pitroda's locks.
 
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Dr Kurien ran NDDB with an iron grip. I once asked an official whether there was any tangible difference in discipline on the campus when Dr Kurien was in town and when he was abroad (he used to travel to foreign countries quite frequently). "Things improve in Anand when Dr Kurien lands in Delhi," he told me with a smile.
 
Those were the days when a lot of controversy was raised around NDDB and Operation Flood both by some people in Government and by activists, and Dr Kurien fought back hard. There were committees set up to look into NDDB's affairs, there were questions in Parliament, and there were campaigns in the media.
 
That is when it struck me that NDDB did not have a set up to handle media relations and I suggested to him that it might be a good idea to appoint someone to handle this area for the organization. He jumped at the suggestion, and I then put an agency in touch with him, which helped the organization identify a suitable candidate.
 
As I grew in my career, I was itching to get out of Baroda, which I thought did not provide me all the opporunities to make it big. I did finally move to Delhi in the late 1980s. But I often wondered how Dr Kurien, who had seen much more of the world and what it has to offer, had decided to stay on in Anand, which was a much smaller place than Baroda.
 
But he clearly enjoyed living there and appreciated the respect and trust that the people of Gujarat, including Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Tribhuvandas Patel and H M Patel, had shown him. He, in fact, shared his Ramon Magsaysay Award with Tribhuvandas Patel. The money they got as part of the prize helped to set up the Tribhovandas Patel Foundation, which runs a rural health project in and around Anand.
 
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Dr Kurien told me once that it was only Gujarat that could give opportunities of the sort he got to outsiders. "The Gujarat Government appointed me as Chairman of the Gujarat Electricity Board. Do you think a Gujarati would be made the chairman of the Kerala State Electricity Board?" he asked. 
 
Dr Kurien was media savvy in his own way and his personality ensured that NDDB and the dairy sector remained in the news regularly in the 1980s. These days, of course, the media hardly has the time and space for such activities.
 
At one stage, Dr Kurien was also fascinated by the idea of a rural newspaper, suggested by some friends of his, but the project never went beyond that stage.
 
Dr Kurien's achievements in helping to make India the world's largest milk producer can be fully understood only by someone who has lived through the milk shortages upto the late 1960s and early 1970s.
 
In those days, we lived in Baroda, and we used to have milk cards, which entitled us to two bottles of milk a day. To buy those against the card, we had to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and stand in unending queues. 
 
But things changed dramatically over the next few years, and by the early 1980s, there were facilities like milk vending machines in many parts of the city. And, wonder of wonders, you could buy as many milk pouches as you wanted from general stores at any time of the day!
 
Simultaneously, there was another revolution happening. Traditional milk products such as pedhas, shrikhand and so on were being made by dairies such as the Sugam Dairy in Baroda and Amul in Anand and these brands became household names in no time at all. These products were now made in hygienic conditions and untouched by hand, and people took to them in a big way. 
 
And as Tetrapak came into India, these dairies also started using their spare capacities to fill fruit juices and other products in Tetrapak packs for many private sector companies.
 
Today, when we buy milk off the shelf, traditional Indian sweets in sealed packs or sip fruit juice from a Tetrapak packet, we might not quite realise how much of all this was made possible by one man's dreams and the many battles he had to fight to make them happen.
 
Sonny Abraham
Sonny Abraham
Sonny Abraham is the Chief Editor of NetIndian. Before launching NetIndian in mid-2009, he was the Editor of UNI, one of India's major news agencies, capping nearly 30 years with the organization. He began his journalistic career as the UNI Correspondent in Baroda in the 1980s. He has also served as the agency's Middle East and North Africa correspondent in the 1990s.
 
NNN
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