Room with a View|Nov 9, 2012 4:00 AM| by:

Milky Ways on Earth

Book: I Too Had a Dream by Verghese Kurien as told to Gouri Salvi

There are just so many incredible people and events that go on in this country which most of us remain quite unaware of. The story behind Amul, our utterly butterly famous company for milk products, is just one such example. And tragically, I only got into the details after the passing of Verghese Kurien, known also as the Milkman of India.

His life was such that personal and professional were completely intertwined and what one sees is an astounding sense of commitment and level of dedication to a cause that is not one’s own but genuinely for the good of the people. It was not just about setting up an industry but of making a deep impact on the society as well for he truly understood that you cannot have one without the other:

“Similarly we began taking them (the women of the villages) to visit the cattle-feed plants and explaining to them how feed is formulated, why it has 18 per cent protein, and what protein is. We informed them why we add vitamins and minerals; why a female buffalo who is dry in the last months of pregnancy should be fed properly even though she is not giving milk, as a foetus was growing inside her. Could these women not relate all this to their own growing foetuses? Were we only discussing animal nutrition? We started taking our women cooperative society members to the artificial insemination centres, too. Their only demand was that no male member from their village be present during these visits. We showed them how semen is collected from a bull; we made them look through microscopes at live semen; we explained to them the mysteries of conception and birth by using charts. Did they then not ask: ‘Is this not what happens in humans beings too?’ Could we not then lead them on to birth control?

What then was the Kaira Cooperative? It was certainly not only about milk. It was very soon becoming an instrument of social and economic change in our rural system. It was evolving into a programme that involved our farmers in their own development. This I learnt very early on through my years of working closely with Tribhuvandas and the farmers of Kaira district: true development is not development of a cow or buffalo but development of women and men. However, you cannot develop women and men until and unless you place the instruments of development in their hands, involve them in the process of such development and create structures that they themselves can command. What, therefore, is a government at its best? It is a government that ‘governs’ least and instead finds ways to mobilise the energies of our people.”

He wasn’t one to skirt around the bushes – Kurien always called a spade a spade and perhaps got into the wrong books of many influential businessmen and politicians but cared nothing for it. For him it was a simple reasoning:

“There is nothing wrong in building flyovers in Delhi. What is not fair is when we do not also build an approach road to villages across the nation. There is nothing wrong in having fountains with coloured lights in the capital. After all, Delhi should be beautiful. But it is unjustified when we have not provided drinking water to all our villages. There is nothing wrong in having a modern, private hospital in Bombay, or the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, or other large medical institutions in our big cities. But it is not justified when we have not arranged to have two drops of a medicine put into the eyes of a farmer’s newborn baby, and that baby goes blind. While this would have cost us nothing, we have preferred to spend crores of rupees in building five-star hospitals in cities. Why does this happen? Because policy making is in our hands – in the hands of the elite – and naturally, even unconsciously perhaps, when we make policies we make policies that suit us; we usurp the resources of this land somewhat shamelessly to benefit ourselves. The most charitable interpretation of it is that we do it unconsciously.”

I wish I had had an opportunity to meet Verghese Kurien not for any other reason but to thank him for devoting himself to the country and its people. The truth is that there are probably many more Kuriens out there who we will never hear about or meet or whose stories we may never chance upon while on the other hand, we wake up each morning with the tales of those who plunder the nation of her resources and pride – it all seems so frightfully lopsided. At the end of the day, I hope you will be as inspired by Kurien’s work and words as I was and make a move in the smallest possible way to bring in the much needed balance – that would be simply the first step.

I Too Had a Dream is a book which everyone should read for not only is it interesting to see the goals achieved but also reflective of the sheer grit and determination that is so necessary to make one’s dreams come true.

Here we share the prologue written by him to his grandson:

My dear Siddharth,

When did I write to you last? I have trouble even remembering! In today’s fast-paced world we have become so addicted to instant communication that we prefer to use a telephone. But speaking on the telephone only gives us an immediate but fleeting joy. Writing is different. Writing – even if it is a letter – not only conveys our present concerns and views of the events taking place around us but it becomes a possession that can be treasured and re-read over the years, with great, abiding pleasure.

What is contained in the chapters that follow is, of course, more than a letter. You may not wish to read it all right away but, perhaps, a couple of decades or more from now, you will pick up these jottings of mine again and they will give you a deeper understanding of what I have done, and the reasons I pursued a life of service to our nation’s farmers. You will then discover in them a valuable reminder of the days just before the world entered the twenty-first century. And you may want to share my memories with those of your generation, or even younger, to provide them a glimpse of the world your grandparents lived in and knew.

I started my working life soon after our country became independent. The noblest task in those days was to contribute in whatever way we could towards building an India of our dreams – a nation where our people would not only hold their heads high in freedom but would be free from hunger and poverty. A nation where our people could live with equal respect and love for one another. A nation that would eventually be counted among the foremost nations of the world. It was then that I realised, in all humility, that choosing to lead one kind of life means putting aside the desire to pursue other options. This transformation took place within me fifty years ago, when I agreed to work for a small cooperative of dairy farmers who were trying to gain control over their lives.

To be quite honest, service to our nation’s farmers was not the career I had envisioned for myself. But somehow, a series of events swept me along and put me in a certain place at a certain time when I had to choose between one option or another. I was faced with a choice that would transform my life. I could have pursued a career in metallurgy and perhaps become the chief executive of a large company. Or, I could have opted for a commission in the Indian Army and maybe retired as a general. Or, I could have left for the US and gone on to become a highly successful NRI. Yet I chose none of these because somewhere, deep down, I knew I could make a more meaningful contribution by working here in Anand, Gujarat.

Your grandmother too made an important choice. She knew, in those early days, life in Anand could not offer even the simple comforts that we take for granted today. However, she ardently supported my choice to live and work in Anand. That choice of your grandmother to stand by me has given me an everlasting strength, always ensuring that I shouldered my responsibilities with poise.

Whenever I have received any recognition for my contributions towards the progress of our country, I have always emphasised that it is a recognition of the achievements of many people with whom I had the privilege to be associated with. I would like to stress even more strongly that my contributions have been possible only because I have consistently adhered to certain core values. Values that I inherited from my parents and other family elders; values that I saw in my mentor and supporter here in Anand -Tribhuvandas Patel. I have often spoken of integrity as the most important of these values, realising that integrity – and personal integrity, at that – is being honest to yourself. If you are always honest to yourself, it does not take much effort in always being honest with others.

I have also learnt what 1 am sure you, too, will find out some day. Life is a privilege and to waste it would be wrong. In living this privilege called ‘Life’, you must accept responsibility for yourself, always use your talents to the best of your ability and contribute somehow to the common good. That common good will present itself to you in many forms every day. If you just look around you, you will find there is a lot waiting to be done: your friend may need some help, your teacher could be looking for a volunteer, or the community you live in will need you to make a contribution. I hope that you too, will discover, as I did, that failure is not about not succeeding. Rather, it is about not putting in your best effort and not contributing, however modestly, to the common good.

In life you, too, will discover, as I did, that anything can go wrong at any time and mostly does. Yet, there is little correlation between the circumstances of people’s lives and how happy they are. Most of us compare ourselves with someone we think is happier – a relative, an acquaintance, or often, someone we barely know. But when we start looking closely we realise that what we saw were only images of perfection. And that will help us understand and cherish what we have, rather than what we don’t have.

Do you remember when you accompanied me to the magnificent ceremony in Delhi in which our President awarded me the Padma Vibhushan in 1999? With great pride, you slipped the medal around your neck, looked at it in awe and asked me very innocently if you could keep it. Do you remember the answer your grandmother and I gave you? We told you that of course, this medal was yours as much as it was mine but that you should not be satisfied in merely keeping my awards – the challenge before you was to earn your own rewards for the work that you did in your lifetime.

And in the end, if we are brave enough to love, strong enough to rejoice in another’s happiness and wise enough to know that there is enough to go around for all, then we would have lived our lives to the fullest.

I would like to dedicate these musings to you, Siddharth, and to the millions of other children of your generation in our country, in the hope that upon reading them you will be inspired enough to go bravely out into your world and work tirelessly in your chosen field for the larger good of the country, for the larger good of humanity. Remember, the rewards that come to you then are the only true rewards for a life well-spent.

With my fondest love,

Yours affectionately, Dada