Milk farmers show that small can in fact be big
CONSCIENTIOUS visitors to India would often spot billboards sporting a hand-drawn cartoon of a girl in a polka-dot frock with blue hair and a ponytail.
The image would carry a clever catchphrase on a contemporary issue. The catchphrase would pack a punch, both subtle and sublime, through its play on words. The girl is affectionately known as “Amul Girl”, and is as popular and loved as the brand after which it has been named – Amul.
Amul, inspired from the Sanskrit word “Amulya”, which means priceless or precious, stands for “Anand Milk Producers Union Limited”, deriving its name from Anand, a city in the Gujarat province of India where it is based. The brand is owned by Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation.
GCMMF, the apex organisation of dairy co-operatives in Gujarat is India’s largest food product organisation with an annual turnover of $4.5 billion (R656.7bn) and is jointly owned by around 3.6 million milk producers (read small farmers) in Gujarat with daily milk procurement to the tune of 18 million litres a day from more than 18 500 village milk co-operative societies covering 33 districts.
However, India’s largest exporter of dairy products had a humble beginning and a laborious conception. A few years before India’s independence in 1947, farmers in Kaira or Kheda, a district in Gujarat, were eking out a tough existence, as were their compatriots in other parts of the country.
The milk procurement and marketing system was controlled by contractors and middlemen which ensured hefty profit margi ns from the sale of milk to all but the farmers. The farmers, who were generally illiterate but not unwise, could see the entire system was geared against them.
They were constrained because of the lack of bargaining power, access to supply chains and marketing channels. Value addition by turning milk into milk products was an unviable proposition in view of a lack of proper storage.
A delegation of farmers went to Sardar Patel, the towering figure of India’s struggle for independence, one of the founding fathers of modern India and the man who is credited for ensuring the integration of 562 princely states into a unified, independent India. Sardar Patel advised them to combine their forces and market the milk through a co-operative society of their own. He prescribed self-reliance by setting up the co-operative’s own pasteurisation plant.
He advised that should permission by the colonial government for setting up such a co-operative be rejected, they could go on a strike and refuse to sell milk to the contractors and middlemen.
An avid disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel was drawing a leaf from the tried and tested methodologies perfected over the course of struggle of independence in the last several decades.
Morarji Desai, Sardar Patel’s trusted lieutenant and a fellow Gandhian, was deputed to Kheda to steer the efforts in organising the milk co-operative. In a meeting in January 1946, it was decided to organise milk producers’ co-operative societies in each village of the Kaira district in order to collect milk from their member farmers. All the milk societies would join into a union which would own milkprocessing facilities.
Expectedly, the colonial government turned down the demand resulting in a milk strike by the farmers. The combined might of the small farmers forced the hand of the powerful colonial government; Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers’ Union Limited, Anand, was registered in December, 1946, unleashing the co-operative movement in a soon to be independent India. From just a handful of farmers producing about 250 litres a day, the movement grew to 432 farmers producing 5 000 litres a day in 1948.
Enter Dr Verghese Kurien, a young dairy engineer who joined Amul in 1949. Earning the sobriquet of “the milkman of India” in years to come, the charismatic Kurien led Amul into an awe-inspiring movement with the power to change the rural landscape through the wonder of co-operatives.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister inaugurated the first factory in October, 1955.
In 1964, the then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, during his visit to inaugurate Amul’s cattle-feed plant, expressed his desire to Dr Kurien to replicate the Amul model throughout India. Thus, was born the National Dairy Development Board with its office at Anand and Kurien as the founder chairperson.
The board subsequently conceptualised and led a transformative dairy development programme in India popularly known as “Operation Flood” or “White Revolution”. The programme, stands to be the largest dairy development programme drawn in the world, positioning India as the largest milk-producing nation in the world.
There has been no looking back since then and the product portfolio covers the entire spectrum. In a cradle-to-grave arrangement, Amul offers end-to-end services to farmers through cattle feed, supply chains, veterinary services, cattle breed improvements and so on.
Amul proves that small is big and a bottom-up approach can do wonders. The famed Amul model of dairy development is a three-tiered structure with the dairy co-operative societies at village level federated under a milk union at the district level and a federation of member unions at state level.
A truly reverse-pyramid in operation, delivering handsome returns to the stakeholders.
Amul’s popular brand slogan is “Amul: the taste of India”. It could very well be called “Amul: the story of India”.
Shukla is the Indian consul-general in Cape Town
Mokapela is a senior lecturer in the Department of Xhosa at the University of Western Cape.