Verghese Kurien: death of an Indian milk revolutionary

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Milk

Dr Verghese Kurien
Dr Verghese Kurien
Few individuals have had as much impact on a produce industry as Dr Verghese Kurien, who passed away in Gujarat last weekend. In a career spanning almost 60 years, Kurien transformed the way India's dairy industry operates and led Amul to become an industry leader.

The Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, to give Amul its official title, has changed Indians’ dairy habits and is up there with India’s most beloved names. But sadly the man behind the rise of Amul - and the leader of India’s “White Revolution” - passed away on Sunday at the age of 90.

Over a long life, Kurien has added an exceptionally long list of achievements to his name. He helped thousands of farmers to create dairy co-operatives to produce and market their milk, and his influence helped reduce hunger and poverty as India eventually became the world’s largest milk producer. 

His passing has been noted at the highest level of government, with Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, remarking that Kurien’s “contribution to the welfare of the farmer and agricultural production and development of the country is immeasurable​.”

Accidental beginnings

Kurien’s career began in the late 1940s at a government research creamery in the western state of Gujarat. Having returned from performing graduate work in the United States, he was duty-bound to take the post as a means to repay the government for subsidising his studies. 

He noticed how small dairy producers were being exploited by larger dairies. The bigger companies used their storage facilities and better means of transport to grow their share at the expense of the privateers - and their increasing government connections further reinforced their rise. 

At about this time, the first dairy co-operatives were forming, and Kurien was called on by one of these for help to expand. He assented and today Amul has over 3 million milk producers under its banner.

The White Revolutionary

Some time later, in 1965, the central government looked to expand the co-operative system across the country. The policy, which was headed by Kurien as the first chairman of the National Dairy Development Board, was known officially as Operation Flood, although it is now better known as the White Revolution. It helped fuel India’s rise as a dairy producer - Amul claims that from 20 million tonnes in the 1960s, the country’s milk production now stands at 120 million tonnes.

Because of the success of Operation Flood, the co-operative model was taken to other food industries. In 1989, Kurien was awarded the World Food Prize for his “recognition that feeding the world’s citizens includes co-ordinating breakthroughs in production with effective management and distribution strategies.”

Leader-writers have been busy paying tribute to Kurien since his death on Sunday. “His greatest contribution was the give a position of pre-eminence to the farmer​,” said the Hindustan Times. Business Today said: “Had Verghese Kurien been a private equity investor, he would have retired as one of the richest men in India... Few men can match such a contribution​.”

Kurien, who was cremated in the Gujarati village of Anand, is survived by a wife, a daughter and a grandson.

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