The Lonely Dudhwalla: India’s Shame

Verghese-Kurien-1I had just entered my teenage years when I discovered the power of the idiot box. As we sat huddled before the eye-popping technology in a rectangular shape , my first memories are those of hearing a deep baritone voice, intellectually refined , possessing extraordinary depth and talking esoteric stuff. I did not understand much, but was hugely impressed by the missionary man. It was Verghese Kurien.

When I last heard the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s government was working over-time to ensure that Kurien was forthwith denied some luxurious privileges; a cook, his car and a security guard. Modi’s government, frequently lauded as a development model by cosmetic analysts , gullible scribes and super-sized CEOs , is obviously looking at cost-cutting in times of difficult financial crunch, I guess. Perhaps that explains the charitable excesses of lollipops sops and tax-breaks being provided to industrial houses , who therefore hail Modi as a bearded messiah, the accessible magical alchemist. Kurien, is in no Fortune Top 10 billionaire list like Ambani bro’s and matching Mittal’s. He does not own colourful cricketers and hold yacht-parties even as his companies sink in deep waters. Neither is he giving tall spiel on corporate governance in a US business school. And neither has he written management potboilers on the emerging shape of the world. He is just simply greater; much bigger than all of them put together.

My father, an old-fashioned economist and a devout champion of the co-operative movement , once told me, “ Verghese Kurien is one of India’s greatest freedom-fighters who never went to jail”. Once again, I was flummoxed. I could never fathom why these profound characters always spoke in such obfuscating language. But I solved the ambiguous puzzle soon enough. Kurien, a Michigan university graduate in mechanical engineering, had single-handedly transformed rural Gujarat through creating local co-operatives in dairy farming, thereby ushering in what became famous as India’s “ white revolution”. And had successfully outsmarted well-entrenched transnational companies.

In the corporate world today, CEOs and management gurus talk of profit-sharing and employee empowerment. Kurien , in then Third World India considered third-class by a supercilious western world, created a cooperative infrastructure that changed lives of whole villages and poor farmers , creating prosperity, ensuring fair remuneration, enriching communities and making a remarkable distribution structure that redefined the model of India’s rural development. And soon enough, a brand called Amul was born. It’s market valuation ( if possible) would exceed that of Citibank for sure.

India is today the largest milk producer in the world, and Operation Flood was named such, because Kurien made a household necessity available across the vast country-side. He humbled the mighty multinational Nestle, and Polson butter disappeared back to it’s Occidental shores. The Indian buffalo had out-performed the Swiss cow. And through a cooperative framework that performed to exceptional detailing, he altered India’s rural landscape. The world came calling. Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Ramon Magsaysay and several international recognition followed. But Kurien stayed put in his little shy hamlet of Anand in Mehsana district even as Amul became the butter of the nation.

But then dramatically in 2006 they unceremoniously dumped him from the same homes from where he created , what I believe, is India’s first multinational ( sorry, Tatas), the best distribution system ( apologies, ITC) and a revolutionary breakthrough in community welfare and employee engagement ( no offense, the tax-shelter seeking IT firms).

Some say he is terribly arrogant, and a demanding leader. The truth is that he is an exceptional genius, and the least concession that we can give him is his high exacting standards; that is not arrogance, it is just fundamental expectations of a superlative dreamer , but ordinary mortals will not understand that. Neither will Narendra Modi.

The dodgy Indian media has conveniently forgotten Verghese Kurien. There is more precious ROI in featuring new-age business commanders serenading Modi. It makes for higher TRPs and newsprint spend-value. I have seen no real protest, no genuine remonstrance , not even a tiny editorial against the shoddy humiliation of the greatest technocrat India has ever produced.

I met Kurien much later ten years ago in his humble home in Anand . The supposedly arrogant man helped us to a chair, shared his old stories, and finally saw us off at the door. I consider those few moments chatting with him, an inspiring revelation. And when I told him how awe-struck I was when I first heard him on my Cinevista TV set, he laughed, and said—Thank You! I see what we Indians are doing to him today, and feel ashamed as an Indian.

Verghese Kurien will be 88 years old this year on 26th November 2009.

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