Amul and the Woman Thing

Many decades ago in the late 1970s, we at the Institute of Social Studies Trust were looking for and building up case studies of successful endeavours by women in large numbers.

Many decades ago in the late 1970s, we at the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) were looking for and building up case studies of successful endeavours by women in large numbers. Our belief at that time was that success stories could not only lead to some self-confidence but point the way on the ?how to?. Then we saw Manthan and thanks to that exposure we decided to look at the Amul project. Another famous patron of the democratic cooperative movement of India, Lakshmi Jain, a long-time close friend and ally of Verghese Kurien, introduced me and arranged for us to visit Anand.

While Dr Kurien at that time introduced us to his colleagues in the management of the cooperative’s dairy activities, he himself did not try to meet us. The woman thing had not hit him, yet. However, in collaboration with another great builder of democratic institutions, namely Ela Bhatt, and supported by a UN agency, we decided to have a women?s conference in Anand and requested that we may be allowed to use a hall in the main office building. At that conference, we invited some 20-30 women members of the cooperatives in Anand, who in fact were the milk producers, and who were the base of Operation Flood. We also had some Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) cadres and my own colleagues from the ISST. We invited Dr Kurien to inaugurate and he came reluctantly to sit with us, saying to me: ?They cannot speak, they are ‘just’ hard-working village women? . I said to him: ?Wait and see.?

Mikes were placed, and within a minute the women, all rearers of buffaloes and milk ?maids? queued up to describe the work, benefits and issues that needed to be addressed. We could not stop them. It is to be said to the credit of my dear brother and later a very close associate Verghese Kurien that while initially stunned, later he was exhilarated and excited by the fact that these were the ?workers? on whom his brilliant White Revolution was built. He immediately put his entire organisation at our service. Our research staff moved to the villages, got rides in the milk vans, interviewed women milk producers; his technical staff gave us the details of production, sales and rewards. We learnt about the Anand pattern of building cooperatives and wrote about them in the book called Women?s Quest for Power, calling them the Milkmaids of Kaira district.

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Our studies revealed that adding a buffalo to the household of a landless farmer added about 3-4 hours more work for a woman in the family. This had serious effects on their health and longevity. We brought this to the attention of Dr Kurien and his colleagues and soon the Tribhuvan Foundation set up a health service for the villages and took particular note of this phenomena, which in fact is universal among acute poverty households?i.e. the increased burden on women?s time of additional income-generating activities.

He later affirmed that what became known as the White Revolution or Operation Flood, the greatest and most successful cooperative endeavour in the world, was almost entirely due to the dedication of women, who not only work most dedicatedly to bring in income to their families, but are also able to work together. A phenomenon that is repeated again and again when we see how women come together, struggle but try in self-help groups, apart from other collective activity.

Over the decades, Dr Kurien and I worked together notably with the National Foundation of India, which he helped to found, as well as criss-crossing each other in many other public spaces, due to the work he did along with my husband LC Jain, to revive genuine cooperation. Some decades later, and with that inimitable twinkle in his eyes, Dr Kurien he told me, ?Devaki, you must come back and visit us. We have a feminist now in the family.? This was his daughter Nirmala, who, coming back from college, was exhibiting the characteristics of a strong feminist, which delighted him.

When we have a project like Amul, when we have accolades being given to Dr Kurien in the obituaries, why are we still seeking Walmart to help us organise for production, transport and sales? The women producers of Kaira live and work from their homes, get regular incomes?and the rest of us in India and the world get their products. Here is a farm-gate-to-consumers?-door model. Surely we could do this for our tomatoes and potatoes, if not for other farm products. A democratic cooperative structure at the product base, and the other elements that Dr Alagh, the current chairman of the Institute of Rural Management Anand, an academic centre that was also enabled by Dr Kurien, has so well described could in fact lead to a fantastic success story.

Maybe there is another Verghese Kurien in the scenario, somewhere, who would like to battle for bringing the Anand pattern into other agricultural products?and he/she may get the Bharat Ratna for overpowering the Walmart model with our own home-grown model?with another operation flood, a flood of other food products. This would be the most appropriate way to honour the memory of Dr Verghese Kurien, the milkman of India.

The author is former member of the Karnataka Planning Board, currently member of the Council of the National Institute of Advanced Studies Bangalore

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First published on: 13-09-2012 at 03:38 IST