Book Review: I Too Had A Dream
Several incidents in the book give substance to Kurien’s point that with every challenge comes an opportunity
The book by Dr. Kurien describes how a sleepy and dusty little town transformed itself into the Milk Capital of India. After a few pages of his eventful early years, it narrates the circumstances under which he went to Anand which is very interesting, given the circumstances like the Bombay Milk Scheme and the protest by the dairy farmers. When many would wonder how Kurien could reach such great heights, the book slowly unravels how the glorious history began. Later in the book, it is discovered how Dr. Kurien involved himself with the cause of the Kaira milk cooperative. The revolution wouldn’t have been successful without Tribhuvandas Patel who is introduced in the book with his noble qualities.
Several incidents in the book give substance to Kurien’s point that with every challenge comes an opportunity. He points out how the cooperative model has been crafted for the dairy sector. He also explains how through perseverance they were able to turn out powdered milk from buffalo’s milk though it was considered as impossible. His courage and openness shimmer when he writes about the neglect of Maniben Patel by the Congress Party. It’s very exciting to read how they managed to commission the milk powder plant in one year and got it inaugurated by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India.
He was compassionate to the workers and also believed that the asset of our country is its people and every government should try and tap the energy of its people. Book also speaks of an occasion about Nestle that reflects Kurien’s pride in being an Indian.
During the conversation with Gouri Salvi, Kurien revealed how he handled Polson, another dairy product manufacturer, very diligently to bring Amul to the zenith. There was a continuous threat from Polson in respect of unhealthy competition, feud over the division of operational area (Division of Kaira district), etc. Kurien was completely against imported dairy products as he wanted to make India self-sufficient in dairy products with the empowerment of farmers in a democratic way. In doing so he received generous support from many ministers like Krishnamachari TT and Subramaniam. Being impressed upon Kurien’s model and tangible benefit, Krishnamachari, the then Commerce Minister, ordered to chop down the import of butter to safeguard Indian Dairy Farm Business and at the same time healed the chronic problem of shortage of Foreign Exchange Reserve. ‘Value for money’ is the message of Amul for its consumers. Despite other market players’ scrupulous ways to market products produced with undesirable ingredient formula, Amul persisted in its quality norms and succeeded in facing up the threat from its rival. To Kurien, it is the consumer’s satisfaction that does matter most.
For Kurien, Amul is beyond just milk products. It is about creating an institutional framework. An institution where people have their own identity, they are solely responsible for deciding what to do and how to do. In doing so, Kurien had to sacrifice his time with family. But being with Amul was his passion which led him to keep away with many advantageous offers.
The Kaira Union’s new cattle-feed compounding factory sponsored by Oxfam at Kanjari was to be inaugurated by the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri on Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary. The Prime Minister visited Ajarpura without any security and stayed in the house of Ramanbhai, a villager. That is also an interesting instance to read. He then visited the milk cooperative society, followed by Anand and Dr. Kurien’s house. Shastriji was overwhelmed at the success of the dairy and asked Kurien to replicate the same across India. Kurien said that he will operate from Anand, but without a single paisa from the government. The Prime Minister, having agreed to his requests, asked him to meet the officials.
However, Kurien found that the bureaucrats of Delhi were unhappy with him and his idea and kept postponing his files and proposals. So, he decided, along with his Kaira Cooperative Union, to set up NDDB on their own.
He, together with H M Dalaya and Michale Halse, proposed Operation Flood, which was attributed as ‘the billion-liter idea’.
L P Singh, the Home Secretary gave Dr. Kurien an opportunity to present his proposal in his house and it was immediately sanctioned without the involvement of any politician.
This proposal was sent to the World Food Programme and Dr. Kurien visited Rome to present it to an executive committee of the World Food Programme comprising 24 nations. The presentation was well appreciated and he convinced the gathering that the food aid would be handled carefully and would not cater to the political interests. He also stressed the impact of this aid since it gave an opportunity to replicate the Anand pattern at the national level. He was nominated as the Chairman of NDDB by the Indian Government and in July 1970, the ‘billion-liter idea’ was officially launched.
Marketing was a major concern and so was procurement. The bedrock of this system was the completely decentralized cooperative system. NDDB also took the role of a canalising agency, wherein it canalised the import and distribution of the commodity.
Dr Kurien exhaustively describes some of the moments which posed hurdles to the project, like the denial of government to import dairy vending machines for various reasons, and how this project isn’t in favour of poverty alleviation, etc.
The way of handling criticism by NDDB and IDC is commendable. There have been instances where a long-lost foe after getting a bureaucrat position takes on the oath of revenging against Dr. Kurien and thus ends up harming Operation Flood. It also narrates how in times of difficulties; some important people were key to the sustainability of the project. Through all this, Dr. Kurien emphasised on one theme that Operation Flood has been a crucial factor in the success and removal of unfair practices by middlemen in the dairy industry. There have been multiple circumstances when Dr. Kurien has offered his resignation since anybody has pointed a finger at the working or the motive of the Operation Flood; only to be rejected by the Prime Minister.
Political and bureaucratic support is always required to move forward with any kind of organization and Kurien realized it very well. For his bureaucratic support, he managed to retain his chair of NDDB even after being dismissed by Jagjivan Ram for refusing to line up a private diary for the minister. He had access to all the Prime Ministers of his time and he got his works done by leveraging upon these relationships. While replicating the Anand pattern for oilseeds, he got tremendous support from the Central Government. For reducing the import of vegetable oil and thereby reducing the outflow of foreign exchange, he started vegetable oil mills marketed beneath the brand name of Dhara, a low-cost high quality domestically created products.
After ‘Operation Flood’, Verghese Kurien got an invitation from many countries especially developing countries like India. All these countries wanted Kurien to do something for them, as he had done in India. During these visits, he met several fascinating folks. One such personality was Alexei Kosygin, Soviet’s Premier, who remarked that Kurien’s work had taken a long time and failed to bring revolution in other dimensions such as cotton, other agricultural merchandise. Kurien was invited on a state visit to Russia and after seeing the depressing condition there he was convinced that whatever he had done in India was really tough to achieve and is far better than what Soviet was doing at that particular point of time. He also talks about his experiences in Pakistan and why the cooperative model couldn’t be replicated there. Brand “Amul” was invited to start up its branch in Sri Lanka. There were various other countries that wanted Verghese Kurien to start organizations like Amul in their country. From all these experiences Kurien learned that corruption was the major reason why such organizations couldn’t be set up everywhere. Then there was also a lack of political will in those countries. Multinationals were also playing all their might to avoid any such cooperative model developing anywhere.
Speaking of his stint at Gujarat Electricity Board, he expresses his anger and frustration regarding the structured corruption and ill hand which is at the helm of affairs in several government-run institutions. He suggests the same time-tested policy of co-operatives for power reforms too. A civic structure managed by villagers where the electric power is generated by the corporation and last-mile delivery and distribution is handled by village bodies. His ideas undergo waves of acceptance and reluctance by officials and end up being an outstanding plan however yet to be enforced.
Dr. Kurien ends the chapter with anecdotes showing a glimpse of his lifelong beliefs and ideals, that shaped him, people around him and also the organisations which he was associated with. He speaks of his take on money, bureaucracy and the struggle which took place post his retirement from NDDB. He ends the book with his “dream” regarding cooperatives and his love for farmers, which he attributes as the greatest source of inspiration, even accidentally though.
In a nutshell, the book “I too had a dream” portrays how a community-driven organisation can be developed by beating all the odds and sustain in the present globalized environment by overcoming political, social, economic and organisational bottlenecks. At some places, the book may appear to be self-praising but for a person who dedicated his whole life for the betterment of the farmers, who put his blood and sweat into the development of the dairy industry, it’s just a drop in the ocean of appreciation.