V. Kurien: India's White Knight
The Essential Kurien
“Listen young man, you don’t even know how to milk a cow and you are lecturing me,” roared Verghese Kurien while rebutting a senior bureaucrat in the Planning Commission, who incidentally went on to become India’s finance secretary later.
This was the late 1970s and Kurien, Chairman of the hugely successful Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) brand Amul, wanted to launch a new range of sweets. Bureaucrats at the commission were apprehensive how such a move may affect the small time confectioners across the country.
Alagh, who was also present in the room, says Kurien won the argument easily. Kurien would often bulldoze his ideas in the government with this forceful - almost domineering - manner.
They say great men are not normal. If one is normal, one tends to act within the limits set by his surroundings. What makes the great men great is their ability to transcend obvious limitations. Their vision and supreme self-belief drives them constantly until they achieve what they wanted to.
Kurien was one such man. Otherwise, he would not have – almost singlehandedly – cranked up the co-operative sector in India and that too in milk production. It was unimaginable in the middle of the twentieth century that small farmers and cooperatives could take up dairying. Western experts saw dairying as the exclusive preserve of big dairy companies conducted over expansive ranches.
In a career that spanned close to six decades, Kurien not only changed the lives of millions of farmers and consumers but also established some of India’s best institutions and brands like the Institute of Rural Management at Anand.
However, Kurien’s larger than life image received a sobering blow with the opening up of the economy in the late 1990s. By the time he ended his tenure at the helm of affairs in 2006, even his own students and confidants started questioning strict adherence to his co-operative model.
A Sobering End
Most people who have worked with him remember him as a very headstrong, opinionated colleague who had a biting sense of humour and used to often take it out on bureaucrats and the so-called intellectuals.
He was equally strict with his disciples who held him in great awe. Phansalkar says Kurien believed if something is worth doing then its worth doing well but he was also quite supportive of his students and often his dreaded sense of humour took a more benevolent tone before his students.
“Once I placed a 10 page report on his desk but by some chance page 6 was missing. He called me asked why was I hiding page 6 from him!” says Phansalkar.
But his forthright nature could often be too hot to handle for many. According to an apocryphal story, the ambassador of New Zealand was criticizing India’s protectionist policies while Kurien was also on the dias. At the end of her speech, Kurien turned to her and said, “Madam if each India spits in New Zealand’s direction, your country would drown!”
Often he was accused of being obstinate like the time when he refused the government to station himself and the NDDB in New Delhi. His rationale was that the institution should be close to the people and that’s how he stayed put in Anand.
Benegal recalls that Kurien was a very different person when it came to the farmers. “He saw himself as their servant and never tried to have his way at their cost.”
In fact, he was quite like a child full of a deep sense of wonder when not dealing with bureaucrats!
During a high profile visit by Russian dignitaries including Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin (the First Secretary and Premier respectively)to Anand , Kurien was thrilled to use the satellite phone which Kosygin carried. He promptly called a friend in Brazil when Kosygin offered him the phone.
“He was very receptive of new technology,” said Benegal.
When the 90 year old Verghese Kurien died on Sunday in Nadiad, the very same place where he completed his life’s work, India lost more than just one of its most patriotic and courageous sons.
“He was an icon. His death marks the end of an era,” says Alagh
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