A brief history of AMUL and Dr. Verghese Kurien

Dr. Verghese Kurien, the “father of the white revolution” and co-founder of great brands like AMUL, Mother Dairy, and Dhara, was a metallurgy engineer but was forced to take dairy engineering when he was sent to the USA on a scholarship by the Indian government. In 1949, he returned from the USA and was posted in this small village in the Kheda district of Gujarat named “Anand” at a national dairy research institute.

During those times, the dairy farmers of Anand and India, in general, were gravely exploited by the private milk companies, milk commissioners, mill contractors, and merchants. Farmers were dejected and miserable. They soon realize that the increased price these companies obtained from the government went into the pocket of private players, milk contractors, but not the farmers. Kheda’s farmers went and complained about their exploitation to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Patel was convinced that to save themselves, the farmers needed to control the procuring processing and marketing of the milk and sent Morarji Desai to carry the struggle forward. In January 1946, Morarji Desai held the first meeting. In that meeting, two resolutions were passed, first that no milk would be sold to Polson dairy which was the principal private company, was second to form a cooperative in each of the villages in Kheda district and a Union all this village cooperative that Anand which will handle the processing of milk.

In 1949 when Kurien came to Anand, he said, “I hated Anand and wanted to run away, but I could not because the government of India had paid for my education in the US and I was on the contract to work whenever they send me for five years.” He was so frustrated that he started writing to the ministry of agriculture every month submitting his resignation, saying that “I was drawing a salary of rupees 350 for doing no work and instead of wasting governments money I should be allowed to go”. Though in his free time, he helped this unique group of people next door, the “Kheda milk cooperatives.”

Kurian’s persistent letters to the agriculture ministry finally paid off, and the government decided to accept his resignation. Tribhuvandas Patel, the chairman of Kheda milk cooperative, got to of this news he asked him why don’t you stay back and help us till you get another job? Kurian accepted the offer for two months. Little did he realize that this two-month contract with the milk cooperative was merely the beginning of a lifelong association with it. Furthermore, in the year 1950, he formally rejoined the Kheda milk cooperative as a general manager. The reason Kurien gave for joining the cooperative was that “I saw when you work merely for your profit the pleasure is transitory, but if you work for others there is a deeper sense of fulfillment and if things are handled well the money too is more than adequate.”

A unique problem faced by Indian dairying is that buffaloes give double the milk in winters than in summers. To tackle this surplus milk in winters, the Kheda cooperative decided to manufacture milk powder. The experts from different advanced countries advised that milk powder cannot be made from buffalo milk. Here was a valuable but sad lesson that was to be learned. The technical advice is all too often dictated by the economic interest of the advanced countries and not by the needs or ground realities in developing countries. In reality, milk powder can be produced, and the Kheda milk cooperative showed them how to do it. And on 31st October, the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the nation’s first modern dairy products plant. Furthermore, in 1957, Kheda cooperative registered their brand name “AMUL,” which comes from the Sanskrit word “Amulya,” meaning priceless.

In 1962, the clouds of war against China darkened the nation. Kurien received a call from the prime minister’s office asking him to come to Delhi for an urgent meeting. He was told that the Indian Army required 2750 tons of milk powder for army personnel. To cope with this huge order, AMUL decided to sacrifice its entire civilian market for six months. Since they were diverting all the milk powder to the army, their products disappeared from the market. Polson, the rival privately owned company of AMUL, took advantage of the situation and tried to capture the civilian market sacrificed by AMUL. Kurian becomes furious, and he went straight to the minister and asked to put an embargo on Polson so that they cannot produce more milk products this year than what they produced last year.

Kurien said that “they had one clear advantage over private companies, that unlike private companies impatient to make profits, to sell, to show the shareholders and bosses that they were doing well, we were very patient, we kept our sites clear on the target the target that the producers must get their due in our case the producer was a farmer.” Much of the success of AMUL (the Anand pattern of the cooperative) has its root in its democratic structure. Each village has its cooperative society. The farmers became members of it. That village cooperative is guided by a managing committee elected by its members, chairman of each of these managing committees formed the general body of cooperative Union of Anand, and this union owns the plant the general body elects the board of directors to guide and oversee the management of the district union and the dairy plant. Each year because the farmer members produce more, they get back that much more. All this has been happening without anybody giving any subsidy. Amul had become India’s largest employment scheme and had more than doubled the farm family income.

AMUL was not just an economic exercise, but it also transforms the social fabric of the communities. For example, the farmer and his wife. While most of the males used to work in the fields, their wives invest time and energy in caring for the cattle,  these cattle through the milk cooperative, started producing income, and soon this income becomes equal to their husband’s income, and that led to a different kind of equation between them. The milk cooperative breaks the caste barriers. The cues for milk collection would be formed on a strictly first-come-first-served basis irrespective of sex, religion, and caste. A high caste Brahmin also has to stand behind a Dalit. Another situation is when somebody’s buffalo runs dry, he buys the milk from the cooperative centers where the milk has been collected from both a Dalit and a Brahmin family. “isn’t it a blow to the caste system?”

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