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I did not know until a few days ago that India had a milkman, never mind that the Milkman of India was Dr Verghese Kurien (1921-2012) who with his Billion Litre Idea and Operation Flood transformed the Indian milk industry. In so doing he aided the improvement in health of the nation, the status and income of many of the poorest farmers and the empowerment of women.
I know this only because I have just read a copy of his autobiography, given to me a year or two ago by his grandson after I had taught him marketing at Bath University. The prologue is in fact a letter to this grandson:
I started my life soon after our country became independent. The noblest task in those days was to contribute in whatever way we could towards building an India of our dreams – a nation where our people would not only hold their heads high in freedom but would be free from hunger and poverty. A nation where our people could live with equal respect and love for one another. A nation that would eventually be counted among the foremost nations of the world.
The fact that we are now celebrating the anniversary of the Independence of both India and Pakistan makes this a timely moment to reflect on the work of Dr Kurien who so profoundly dedicated himself to the development of the secular and progressive nation that was the ambition of the new state. He was a southern Christian unexpectedly instructed by the government to go to the north-western state of Gujarat to help in the dairy industry. He ended up staying there for the rest of his life while building a series of institutions which, according to Ratan Tata, made India the world’s largest milk producer, developed a logistic chain to produce and deliver hygienic and nutritious milk to millions and created the world’s largest food marketing business and the country’s largest food brand. He enabled India to nearly double its per capita milk availability and made India’s dairy industry the largest rural employment provider.
In achieving all this, Dr Kurien explains how he had to interface with government and its bureaucracy, and the many fights he had building a farmer led cooperative while battling with the multinational businesses who wanted to prevent India becoming self-sufficient. Nestle does not come well out of this book, nor do the British. They built the civil service to rule the country and it has proven difficult to flip this into one that recognises its role to serve the people instead. He says; “the greatest repercussion of the government entering into business is that instead of safeguarding people from vested interests, they themselves become the vested interests.”
He was particularly proud that when his farmers queued to deliver milk they did so on a first come basis regardless of caste or religion and they became a wholly united body where neither these things nor political affiliations divided them. He was extremely proud that he was accepted as a Christian in Gujarat and worked with Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
These latter points are more problematic today as the new government seems determined to divide the nation, as Dr Kurien says not just by religion but into “Kshatriyas and Patels and Jats, into Gujuratis and Bengalis, into Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi speaking people”.
Just as Dr Kurien’s milk cooperatives become powerful agents of social change so has the leather industry, which has pulled people out of poverty, got them into the tax system (when the bureaucracy works), and earned valuable foreign exchange. If India is to be a progressive nation it needs the leather industry to do well and build on the success it has had over the last few decades. A successful economy is always a shared outcome between government and industry. The Indian government needs to support is ambitious targets for leather by proper enforcement of environmental and health and safety laws so that misbehaving tanneries do not damage the hard-earned reputation of the efficient and highly capable majority. As costs escalate in China this is the moment to capture market share as brands redesign supply chains. Vital to modern supply chains is the reduction of risks of all kinds and current Indian government policies seem determined to leave everyone uncertain about raw material supply and the tax regime, just as much as it is moving away from the secular nation that Dr Kurien and all his generation worked so hard for.
The British did not do a good job in India, but the modern India needs a stronger dose of that intelligent patriotism that Dr Kurien displayed during his 90 years of service.
Dr Mike Redwood
15th August 2017
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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