AMUL: The Untold Story of a ‘Trimurti’
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 21 Sep 2012 4 Comments

On Sunday, 9 September, around 2 a.m. in Anand, Gujarat, when Verghese Kurien breathed his last, India lost not simply the most formidable “milkman” of the world but the bravest of our post Independence reformers who would not sell India to the White man. Note this: In the early 1990s, when an MNC was trying to prevent a joint venture of the National Dairy Development Board that Kurien helped build up with Sri Lanka, he boldly told the MNC chief that he does not go to Delhi to meet the visiting big bosses of the White world, but to do business there for India.


His words were prophetic: “It is about time the White man understood that all Indians are not for sale. There will be a few who cannot be bought and they will defend India’s business interest”. Contrast this with what happened in this country in the last few days. The “reformers” are out to sell India to the White man.


Starting from the battle against Parsi controlled Polson group (the famous Polson butter of the 1960s and ’70s, which one does not hear of these days with the unstoppable onslaught of Amul), and on to the Swiss Nestle followed by the snubbing of the Chief of the American Kraft, who came to India and wanted to set up a joint venture in Anand with NDDB, to whom Kurien said the product of the joint venture should be called “Krafty-Amul”, Kurien’s business acumen for the benefit of Indian dairy farmers was unmatched in scale in any other venture seen in post Independent India. The MNC chief got the message and quietly left.


Kurien was contemptuous of the IAS breed. He fought tooth and nail against an IAS officer succeeding him. He stopped financial support to the Kerala Milk Federation when he came to know that it was headed by an IAS official. He brought a journalist, Shreekant Sambrani, to head the now famous Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) in the initial stages of its establishment, which is now headed by a close professional colleague, Dr Yoginder Alagh, an economist.


For all Kurien’s brilliance, strategic planning, tenacity, unimpeachable integrity and honesty in all dealings, and above all, unquestionable national spirit, there is an unknown side to the story of Amul, the “taste of India”.  I have set about writing that aspect in the following paragraphs.  


All revolutions have unsung heroes, and Kurien’s White Revolution also had a few. Many credit the so-called green revolution to M.S. Swaminathan as its “father”. But how many in India know that the real heroes behind the wheat varietal breeding technique, which finally brought out the successful cross between the imported Mexican dwarf variety and the Indian sharbati sonora , were Drs Athwal, Dhawan, Kohli and Mathur, and in rice it was Dr Khush? Yet barring Swaminathan and Khush, all the others have simply faded out or passed away from the agricultural scene of India, the former getting the Director Generalship of the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, Philippines, followed by the world food prize, and  the latter getting a very lucrative post in the very same institute.


I was a Ph.D student in the famous Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa, in New Delhi, in the Department of Agronomy, between 1962 and 1965, when these researchers (my teachers in plant breeding) toiled day in and day out in the wheat and rice fields. But all credit went to Swaminathan.

The same goes for the White Revolution, whose visible face is the one and only Verghese Kurien. Few remember the other central characters in this achievement – late Tribhuvandas Kishibhai Patel and late H.M. Dalaya. But the difference between Kurien and Swaminathan is that the former until his final days continued to speak for India, and died as an Indian dairyman. His heart was in the dairy farmers of India, in their villages, for the welfare of whom no sacrifice was large enough. He gave them his very life, with integrity, dedication and uncompromising national loyalty. And, to be sure, when he received belated recognition in the form of the world food prize, he did not establish a private Foundation in his name. He is a native of Kozhikode in Kerala State, but became a “native” of Anand. It was his home till the very end. And he did not relocate, rather, he refused to.


Late Tribhuvandas Kishibhai Patel was the founder of the original Kheda dairy cooperative in 1946, which went on to become Amul. It was Patel who saw the potential in Kurien and inspired him to invest his talents in bettering the lives of ordinary dairy farmers, rather than compromise with promoters of the dairy industry in London, Geneva or New York. A great difference compared to what happened in India’s agricultural field.


H.M. Dalaya was originally from Karachi, where his family owned a dairy farm with over 300 cows. His return from the University of Michigan, where he studied dairy engineering, coincided with Partition, in which his family lost everything. A dejected Patel contemplated returning to Michigan, and that was the time when Kurien convinced him to come to Anand “just for a few days”.   


The biggest challenge the Kheda dairy faced then was that it had no takers for the surplus milk produced by its farmers, during the “flush” winter months, when buffalos and cows give more milk. As Kurien recalled later, “The Milk Commissioner in Mumbai was unwilling to buy this extra milk, despite my campaigning that it was not possible for us to plug the udders of the buffaloes. The only option left was to have our own powder plant that would convert all the surplus flush season milk to powder, which could be recombined into milk during the lean summer season, when the animals produce less milk.”


However, there was no technology to produce powder from buffalo milk. This was the most difficult task to surmount. And buffalo milk was the mainstay of the Kheda dairy farmers. The prevailing technical opinion was that milk powder can only be produced from cow’s milk. This was the opinion of even the eminent Director of New Zealand’s (the globally well-known dairy country) Dairy Research Institute, Dr William Riddet. Dalaya thought there was a way out. He had once seen a small experimental milk powder plant at Larsen & Toubro factory, and was keen to acquire it to test his ideas. But that plant had been sold to Teddington Chemical Factory in Andheri, Mumbai.  


Under Dalaya’s visionary leadership, both he and Kurien managed to locate the company and persuade its manager to loan them the machine, which they successfully used to produce milk powder from buffalo milk, for the first time in India. Dalaya subsequently travelled to Denmark, another great dairy country, to study milk powder plant designs and operations.


The above efforts of Dalaya led to the manufacture of the Niro Atomiser, the world’s first sprayer-dryer designed for buffalo milk, installed in the Kheda Dairy in October 1955. To this day, not only milk powder, but even cheese and baby food, can be produced from buffalo milk. Hence it was the technical expertise of Dalaya, ably supported by Kurien’s entrepreneurial skill, that India has Amul today. Thus, the original credit to all these epoch-making changes must go to Dalaya, and it needs be said that Kurien always acknowledged this fact with impeccable honesty, unlike some other ‘celebrated’ agricultural scientists of this country. Dalaya passed away in September 2004. And now it is the turn of Kurien. Their joint efforts changed India’s dairy scene from one languishing in darkness to the world’s biggest milk producer and milk processor.


While Patel dealt with the farmers and Dalaya took charge of the technical and internal affairs of the dairy. When Dalaya passed away, Kurien said, “My role was only in marketing, external affairs and handling politicians, bureaucrats and other establishment people”. Amul is thus a ‘Trimurti’ comprising Patel-Dalaya-and last but not the least, Kurien. This is the untold story of Amul.


I had a great opportunity of a life time to meet and interact with Kurien in the mid-1970s when, frustrated with Indian bureaucratic-scientific politics, I was planning to go back to Europe to resume active research, and was successful, without a godfather or patron, in being selected for the world-renowned Senior Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship, Germany. The meeting of the selection committee in Bonn in October 1980 included 29 Nobel Laureates!


This led to the now globally recognized “The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept”, which poses the greatest challenge to the chemically-driven agriculture, euphemistically called the “green revolution”. It also led to my being named to the prestigious National Science Foundation Chair of The Royal Society, Belgium. This couldn’t have happened in India had I continued here, unfortunately.


Today, the Nutrient Buffer Power Concept is changing the course of modern farming. I am saddened that I did all this on alien soil, but Bharat or more appropriately those who “run” Bharat, chose to ignore me. Once when late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri told him that Kurien had been appointed Chairman of the National Dairy Development Board, Delhi, the latter had the gumption to say, “But, there are no cows in Delhi”. The rest is history.


Kurien once famously said: “There are many ways to skin a cat, but we know one and we follow it”. This was the sum and substance of his dogged approach to anything in life. Unfortunately, that did not include fading away gracefully, which some others manage very connivingly in this, let us say, once upon a great land.


The author is former Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium and Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany and Chairman, Independent Expert Committee on Bt brinjal; he can be reached at 

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