The lonely mission of Amrita Patel

Updated: Dec 17 2003, 05:30am hrs
With 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi as her place of birth, shes got true blue Congress blood, she laughs. With environmental issues a passion with her, shes a die-hard green. And having been recently re-appointed Chairperson of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) for another five years on completion of a controversial five-year stint, shes now the White Duchess of Indias co-operative milk sector.

With so many colours splashed on her lifes palette, its hardly surprising that Dr Amrita Patel has led such a colourful existence. Pushing 60, though so well-preserved shed give women half her age a run for their money, the current NDDB Chairperson has lived life on her terms, carving a niche for herself in a field where even men once feared to tread.

Though her first term as NDDB Chairperson will perhaps be remembered more for her sparring bouts with her mentor, the grand old man of the co-operative milk movement Dr Verghese Kurien, it will also be remembered as a time when she finally came out of the shadows of her father, HM Patel, the former ICS-officer-turned politician who was among the ablest finance ministers of the country. Amrita refuses to admit shes had spats with her mentor and former boss. However, her move to professionalise ailing milk co-operatives through joint ventures with NDDB has been roundly criticised by those from the old school who are accusing her of corporatising co-operatives. Whether her decisions on milk co-operatives in India are correct or not, what it does reveal about Amrita is her determination to fight for causes.

From an accidental girl child to an accidental job with the NDDB which was the sole domain of men, the important things in my life seemed to have happened accidentally, she reminisces. Coming from a conservative Gujarati family, young Amrita was the youngest in a family of five daughters. They had hoped she would be a boy. The familys tailor had even done up the new babys room in blue, in anticipation of a male child. She was christened Amrit before her birth. But a girl it was and the name was quickly changed to Amrita. All five of us, however, were fired to prove ourselves as good as sons and stand on our feet.

Her parents wanted her to be a doctor, but she had set her heart on becoming a vet, a desire born out of the distress she felt as a child each time one of their dogs fell sick. There were few vets then, she says, and it was this lack of care for animals which strengthened her resolve to become one.

Following her fathers retirement and their shift to Anand back in 1959, young Amrita, came into contact with her fathers friend Dr Verghese Kurien, by then neck deep in the Operation Flood movement and the setting up of Amul. Whenever the dogs fell sick, we had to seek Amuls assistance, since they were the only ones with a vet service in Anand. Seeing my interest in animal care, the vet taught me how to inject dogs, reminisces Amrita.

Injecting sick dogs, specially the pampered pets of rich Parsis fed on cakes and puddings, however, had her itching for more, and soon enough she started accompanying the vet on his field trips to farmers. It was here that I realised what a cow or buffalo meant to a farmer. For him, its not just an animal, its his livelihood, recalls Amrita. This strengthened her resolve to become a vetwhich only made her mother more unhappy. No man would ever marry a girl who was a vet, she feared. Nevertheless Amrita proceeded to Mumbai for her course in veterinary sciences.The sole girl in her class, she was ostracised by her male class fellows. She had to do her practicals alone since no boy was willing to pair with her. On field visits to nearby towns and villages, while all the boys stayed together, Amrita was forced to stay with some obliging family. Occasionally she contemplated quitting. But I wanted to be a vet enough to go through all that, she says.

When she first approached Dr Kurien for a job at Amul, he told her that Amul did not recruit women even as telephone operators. Desperate, she volunteered to work gratis for 11 months before she was offered a three-month temporary position which later got converted to a full-time job accidentally simply because nobody was willing to work in such a godforsaken place.

Later, Amrita was handpicked by the same Dr Kurien to be groomed for administrative assignments. One of these was to organise Indias first-ever International Dairy Congresswith over 3,000 dignitariesin Delhi, a job she got because many seniors had quit. Amrita distinguished herself in this and thats when perceptions changed. Perhaps Dr Kurien saw that I had abilities beyond my veterinary skills, because he moved me to Anand, this time as Director of Administration and Commercial and then to Delhi again, as head of the region.

How is it that after being groomed by Dr Kurien, who even relinquished his chair as Chairman of NDDB in her favour, she fell out with him Amrita maintains that she is simply following her mission: to organise co-operatives. She acknowledges that much of who she is today is because of Dr Kurien. But her personality traits such as fairness, justice and public-spiritedness she attributes to her late father.

A single woman by choice, Amrita, however, does miss companionship at times. Luckily, ecological issues and working for the poor keep her engaged. Still, she confesses: Sometime when I come back after a trip, I wish I had a wife who could look after my food and the odd jobs around the house.