Forgotten Heroes: Visionary and the Manager
by N S Rajaram on 05 Mar 2017 4 Comments

While Verghese Kurien is justly renowned for his contributions to India’s White Revolution, its founder Tribhuvandas Patel is not as well known to the public. His vision of milk cooperatives networked into a national grid was as necessary as Kurien’s management skills in making India the world leader in milk production. He was also the founder of AMUL, a name that is virtually synonymous with milk and milk products in India today.


His achievement of creating a national grid by networking small producers distributed over a large area is worth revisiting today as the country embarks on a program of meeting its energy needs by exploiting solar power.


Tribhuvandas Kishibhai Patel was born on October 22, 1903 in the village of Anand in Gujarat, a village that he was to make internationally famous by founding Anand Milk Union Limited or AMUL. Founded in 1946 as a small cooperative it has now grown into a $2.5 billion giant. While it lists only about 750 people in its marketing division as employees, it has a pool of more than 3 million independent milk producers as members.


In addition, the AMUL model has spawned many imitators in milk production and in food industry in general. It could serve as model for solar energy production also, especially in combination with the proposed national river grid.


As a youth Tribhuvandas came under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel and participated in the freedom movement. He was imprisoned several times in 1930, 1935 and 1942. He grew particularly close to fellow Gujarati Sardar Patel who impressed him with his capacity to organise people and get them to work towards a common goal. This was the lesson he took to heart when as early as the 1940s he began working with the farmers in the Kheda District under the guidance of Sardar Patel. Soon he set up the milk cooperative union in his native village of Anand to which he was closely attached. He was the first chairman of AMUL.


As the milk cooperative began to grow, he recognized that it needed professional management skills that he did not possess. In 1950, he brought in a brilliant young manager called Verghese Kurien (born 1921) to run AMUL. The rest, as they say is history.


Tribhuvandas’ contribution was widely recognized with the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1963. The Indian Government gave him a Padma Bhushan only the following year. The award seems inadequate given the magnitude and impact of his contribution when people who have done far less like Brajesh Mishra and Amartya Sen have received higher awards. (Also, why do Indian Governments always wait for foreign recognition before they do?)


Untypically for an Indian leader, Tribhuvandas was not ambitious for position or personal glory. When he voluntarily retired from the chairmanship of AMUL, the people - not the Government - rewarded him with six lakh rupees representing one rupee contribution each from six lakh grateful members of the cooperatives he had helped to start.


He used this fund to start a charitable trust, named the Tribhuvandas Foundation, to work on women and child health in his native Kheda district. He was its first Chairman. Characteristically, he handed over the chairmanship to Verghese Kurien when the organization started to grow rapidly, receiving funds from foreign sources.


Tribhuvandas Patel and Verghese Kurien - the visionary and the manager - made an ideal pair. The people of India are fortunate that they had such a dedicated and selfless pair to serve them.


The White Revolution is a near textbook example of the wisdom of the old saying, “Think big, but start small.” Research managers know that when venturing into uncharted waters it is better to start on a small scale so that the problems become easy to identify while the cost of failure is still small.


A bureaucratic mindset on the other hand prefers the reverse approach of a large program with unclear goals. An example of the latter is the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) that has drained the national exchequer while producing no tangible results.


The same money allocated to a few pilot projects in river linking would have provided a valuable learning experience that might have come in handy today. It would have given productive employment to thousands. It is obvious which path is to be preferred in trying to harness solar power. 

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