Verghese Kurien

By: Victoria Yates

Verghese Kurien was born in Kozhikode, Kerala on the 26th of November 1921 into a Syrian Christian family headed by his civil surgeon father.  Upon finishing school, Kurien attended Loyola College in Madras, graduating in 1940 with a degree in physics before taking a further bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Madras. After his graduation, Kurien continued his studies by joining the Tata Iron and Steel Company Technical Institute in Jamshedpur, from where he graduated in 1946.

Further bolstering his academic record, Kurien applied for a government funded Masters program at Michigan State University. The government supported Kurien to specialize in dairy engineering against his pleas to stay in the field of engineering. Fortuitously for Kurien, however, the university did not offer a dairy specialization. Thus, in 1948, Kurien graduated with a distinction in Metallurgical Engineering. He did also however undertake specialist training before serving his time in local government, attending the National Dairy Research Institute in Bangalore.

Kurien arrived in a small village named Anand to serve his two years of service at a government research creamery Kurien. Initially, he was impatient for its end, disliking his job and the restrictions of government work.  The timing of his arrival coincided with a difficult time for small, local dairy farmers who, without an efficient way to get their milk to market, were frequently exploited by larger dairies whose money, resources, and governmental connections allowed them unique benefits.

Earlier in the decade, and in response to this, local farmers led by Tribhuvandas Patel had already started the first dairy cooperative. But it was Kurien who would revolutionize the movement. Kurien’s unhappiness in his job and his intense loneliness had led him to reach out to the local farmers, including Patel. The earnest efforts of this cooperative and the crippling unfairness of the status quo inspired Kurien, and so when he was asked to help the cooperative expand he eagerly agreed. Straight away he insisted that they purchase a pasteurizing machine at the cost of 60,000 rupees. It was a large outlay but an investment that paid off for the small band. Milk could now be transported to Mumbai without it spoiling and the cooperative flourished.

It became the success story of the area, with local farmers from other districts travelling to learn from the cooperative and from Kurien himself. Amongst those who made the pilgrimage were a large number of landless labourers whose assets were few but often included a sole cow or buffalo.

H.M Dalaya further aided the movement when he invented the process of turning buffalo milk into skim milk powder or condensed milk. This breakthrough allowed the cooperative to capitalize on the abundance of buffalo in India and to compete against multi-national corporations who relied solely on cow milk.

The vast success of Amul, as the organization had been titled, put the area and Kurien on the governmental map. As the company grew into the biggest food brand in India, Kurien nevertheless remained in Anand, enjoying the prestige he maintained in the town, and veering away from national politics. His dairies instructed farmers not only in method but also in discipline and cleanliness. In 1965 the government, so impressed by the achievements of Amul, created the National Dairy Development Board to spread this cooperative model nationally. Kurien was inaugurated with great fanfare by the Prime Minister to serve as the board’s founding chairman.  

In 1973, Kurien pioneered Operation Flood (or ‘the white revolution’), a move which would make India self-reliant in milk production. Kurien replicated the cooperatives and setup the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) in order to sell the combined produce of the disparate dairies under the same Amul brand name both nationally and overseas.  Kurien invested in infrastructure for these budding cooperatives. which had grown (by the time of his death) to some 150,000 members.

By creating a self-sufficient dairy system in India, Kurien revolutionized rural India and dramatically improved the lives of the poor living in those areas. The cooperative system has given millions of landless labourers and small farmers a regular income, whilst stabilizing domestic milk prices in India, thus making hygienic milk easily available even amongst the poorest communities.

In 1989 Kurien was awarded the World Food Prize for “his recognition that feeding the world’s citizens includes coordinating breakthroughs in production with effective management and distribution strategies.”

Under Kurien’s model, India became the world’s biggest producer of milk, increasing production from 20 million metric tons in the 1960s to 120 million by 2011.

Beyond this, Kurien also sought to apply the model to vegetable oil in the 1980s, an industry controlled once again by a small and powerful group of select families. Later in life, Kurien was a vocal critic of the liberalization of India which he saw as putting India at risk of unfair competition by large multinational companies, frequently speaking out during interviews on the issues of liberalization and globalization.

He died in Nadiad, in western India, on the 9th of September 2012 aged 90. By the time of his death, he had been awarded 17 honourary doctorates and numerous national and international accolades

Verghese Kurien was a leader of remarkable vision, creativity, and compassion who revolutionized a nation’s industry and economy while transforming the lives of millions of its most impoverished citizens.