Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I too had a dream

I was looking for that one "unputdownable" book since I came back to India. "I too had a dream" (as told to) by Gauri Salvi is a highly addictive account of the journey of Dr. Verghese Kurien. I was first pushed towards reading this book after I read this news. At the time, I was still a post doc at Michigan State University (MSU). So the fact that Dr. Kurien did his masters there, made me feel oddly happy. As I began googling him, I came across this,  which obviously led me to Shyam Benegal's  Manthan. After watching Mathan, I had made a mental note that I am going to read more about this. 

Dr. Kurien did not want to be a dairy engineer. He went to MSU with a sincere intention of studying  metallurgy, even though his scholarship terms clearly stated that he would return as a dairy engineer. He took nominal dairy courses (sadly, MSU was and still is one of the leading universities in dairy engineering in the world), and returned with a cocky assumption that he is going to work for a large corporate. However, when he was asked to cough up Rs. 30,000 for the expenses government incurred on the account of his education or work at a dairy for five years, he chose the latter. He was sent to Anand, Gujrath, with a note on his documents that he would not make a good employee. He had nothing to do for the first year at Anand. He would send his resignation to the government every month, urging them to release him instead of wasting more government money. In what might be called a sudden turn of fate, he had to get his act together to help Tribhuvandas Patel, who was organizing a farmer's ilk cooperative under the guidance of Vallabh Bhai Patel. Kurien started as a technical expert and then never looked back. The book is full of many amusing and enlightening anecdotes. But I think I would like to share some of the important points Kurien makes. 

1. Foreign Aid and subsidies

Kurien elaborates the role of foreign aid and subsidies in the development of people with remarkable perspicuity. In the late sixties, India faced an acute shortage of milk. The per capita consumption of milk of the nation was steadily decreasing and it was necessary to build infrastructure, and supply chains that would resolve this. Kurien along with a visiting professor from Harvard, Michael Halse, wrote the proposal for "Operation Flood", which was implemented from the early seventies through nineties. In 1998, India surpassed the US in the production of milk. And today we are the  world leaders in milk production. This could happen because, instead of accepting excess milk powder that European countries were willing to donate as aid, it was sold at market prices, after reconstituting and packaging as milk. The revenue collected from that aid was used to buy infrastructure to start co-operative milk societies all over the nation, which are still in operation. So instead of feeding free milk to Indian poor and creating more demand (potentially for foreign investors), it was used as a long term investment. Kurien is also skeptical of the various subsidies that the farmers around the world get. It is true, even today (and even in the developed world) that subsidies usually benefit lobbies and corporations more than the farmers. In some cases, subsidies actually create a lot of unwanted problems even for common people (case in point: the various ill effects of the corn lobby in the United States). 

2. Foreign Investment

Amul rose to glory at a time when India had highly regulated foreign investment policies. At one point Nestle invited him to discuss their intention of setting up a plant in India. The chairman of the board, casually mentioned that Nestle could not delegate the work to 'natives' because it is highly technical. Kurien stormed out of the meeting reminding them that they were actually talking to a native. Although over-regulation of foreign investments has led to problems of the other extreme for India in the late nineties, the nationwide networks which were built for farmers during the post independence years would not have been possible if we had left the country open to investment. I have a placard-waving-hippie inside my mind when it comes to most of these issues, but I genuinely believe that farmers should be able to earn good money, no matter where they come from. 

3. Take expert opinion with a pinch of salt

It was a "well known fact" when Kurien started his career that you "cannot" manufacture powdered form of buffalo milk. All experts, from all the leading milk producing countries (New Zealand, Denmark) endorsed this view. However, it was made possible, on a commercial scale at Amul. This reminds me of so many rampant expert opinions that are currently being thrown around in the petroleum and bio fuel industry. It is very important to find out for whom the said expert works, before accepting his views as gospel. Often expert opinions are also driven by the collective opinion of a particular lobby that the expert works for. 

There is this criticism that Amul could not be repeated in other states. It has a lot to do with the rigid bureaucratic structure that we have come to accept when it comes to anything related to the government. When I hear the word co-operative society, the next word that comes to my mind is corruption. However, when I think of "for profit" corporations, the next word that comes to my mind is exploitation. We live in a world where corporations have not just restricted themselves to exploiting human beings, they have also done a lot of irreparable damage to the planet. The politics of profit often replaces the brightest minds with the "corporate conscience", where simple, age old concepts of taking collective responsibility of our planet, are replaced by some convoluted logic "backed by research". We all have had the misfortune of witnessing 5 million barrels of crude oil gushing into our ocean as the "world's best technical experts" watched it helplessly for three months. 

Sustainable growth can only be achieved by creating self-enriching loops. It is just as true for people as it is for the environment. It is high time we start using the words "nurture" and "profit" together. I think the Amul story has those words written all over it. 

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