I was in my intermediate when I cut college to go and see Manthan in Olympia theatre in Mysore. For me, it was one more movie in the passing, well made with a good story. I was already appreciating Shyam Benegal and had seen his earlier movies and was a bit surprised that this appeared to be commercially appealing and was also a modest success. I really had no idea at that point in time that this movie, the man and the idea behind it would turn out to be so influential that it would dictate my career choices, in a way.
About four or five years later I was thrown up with a difficult choice [possibly on January 31st of 1982]. I was to take the entrance exam of Institute of Rural Management, Anand [IRMA]on that morning when we had a college trip. I was in my final year degree, and this was the last time we were all going to be together. I somehow chose to take the exam of IRMA, then an unknown institute just because it had the word “rural” in it and I fancied [as a budding writer in Kannada] that getting to see villages will make my writing richer, and I needed all the experiences that this could provide. I was not sure at that point that I wanted to make a career in rural management, but a career in management looked attractive. It did not carry the hype we have now, but it certainly assured a decent job. Infact the advertisement for IRMA indicated that there would be a job with at least Rs.1,200 per month salary at the end of it, while we would get a stipend of Rs.600 per month as students. Well, it was reason enough for me to consider it seriously.
As I was going through the process of admission, I saw on the news that Prime Minister Mrs.Gandhi had addressed the first convocation of IRMA, and there were thousands of farmers that had attended the convocation. This meant that it was not one of the fly-by-night Institutes. Some people working in the field also assured me that the institute had pedigree and there was no harm in going there. Thus my journey to Anand started.
On reaching Anand, Manthan – the movie started opening up a new meaning for me. Given that we were expected to check into what was called “Farmers’ Hostel” in the NDDB Campus we were expecting a fairly modest accommodation, but were quite pleased to find all the modern amenities that a student could ask for. It was inspiring and as young students we were exposed to the excellent oratory of Dr. Kurien. And he said about the facilities there and said that “Kings do not live in Pig Sties and you are my princes.. I have built this institute to unleash a thousand Kuriens into the field and if one could achieve this, imagine the change you could bring about..”
This was inspiring indeed – it was not only his oratory, but what followed with the sense of commitment that were shown by staff of NDDB, faculty at IRMA that had a lasting impact on us as students. During the two years one ran in with people who eventually made a significant mark in their own fields – Sanjoy Ghose who dedicated himself to development work and was eventually killed by ULFA, Sivakumar the brain behing the e-Choupal idea who were all to a very great extent influenced by the vision given to us by Kurien but found their own language to translate the vision. It was an age where market economy had really not caught up, the Soviet Union was still a single block and being left of centre was fashionable – as was smoking, wearing a kurta and carrying a Jhola. Of course the “management” version of the Jhola was a leather bag from Jawaja – an indication of a rare combination of professional education with development orientation.
For us Kurien was an icon of the possible – a person who under extremely adverse circumstances stuck it out in Anand. Made a virtue of necessity and was extremely successful at that. He was a maverick, sounded autocratic and people used to shudder at his sarcasm. He could move you to tears when he when he thundered [about people standing in queues to supply milk]: “What does it do to a ‘high caste’ Brahmin to stand behind a Harijan because he came after him? Is it only an orderly milk collection? Is it not a blow to the caste system?”
I have been told of this instance – an evidence of his ready wit. In a seminar, Professor of Economics, CT Kurien from Kerala apparently introduced himself to Dr. Kurien. “Hello, I am C T Kurien” for which Dr. Kurien immediately retorted “I am V Kurien – Village Kurien!”, punning on CiTy.
Having gone through education at IRMA and later having consciously chosen to work in the field related to rural management my association did not end after the two years. Kurien had indicated to us that even if 5% of the graduates stayed with the rural sector his mission was accomplished and I believed [and continue to believe] that I was amongst the 5%. Not only me, but most of us who passed out then continue to work in this area and possibly Kurien would be happy to note that almost 50% of that generation work in a loosely defined rural/development sector. My run in with IRMA continued as I became an employee, teaching the next generations of IRMANS for about six years before I decided to move on.
Reading Kurien’s book thus for me was a journey back in time. It contained all the nuggets and the contradictions that have made him what he was. The book is as plainspeaking as he himself could be and talks mostly about his professional life. There is hardly a personal element and possibly he meant it to be so. The book is dedicated to his grandson, with a touching note. But even in including the note Kurien does not – even for a moment – take the focus away from himself. That is Kurien for you, always larger than life, always trying to dictate terms rather than come to terms. Therein lies the success of Kurien, and therein lies the story of his sad exit. The book starts with a journalist trying to ask his future plans and he says “At my age, one does not really have a future. One only has a past.” But having said that, does he really mean it? Or is the future to be lived in the past? Or is it one of those sound bites that he was always willing to give, without much hidden meaning?
We as a country needed Kurien in his role at the time he performed his role to perfection. His book gives a peek into how he kept the interests of the dairy farmers as central and played a game of chess to foster their interests. The game of chess could be in competing in the market, and it could also be in preventing the competition through means that were exclusively available to him. During his entire life it is clear that he played a tom and jerry with the government, largely criticizing the government for its policies, making fun of bureaucrats in public, and a posturing of autonomy. At the same time, he used the government, the bureaucrats and all machinery in ways that would keep putting hurdles in the competition. When the entire economy was liberalized and the licence-quota raj was abolished only two lobbies managed to continue protection. The sugar lobby of Maharashtra and the milk sector which had the Milk and Milk Products Order [MMPO] passed to ensure that easy entry of private sector into this arena had a hurdle to cross. Not surprisingly both these sectors were represented by a co-operative lobby.
Kurien was a product of the liberal attitude of the leaders of Gujarat of that time. Morarji Desai, Vallabhbhai Patel and Tribhuvandas Patel. The former two playing a larger role in the national level politics and thus having an inclusive outlook and the later having absolute focus on what was best for the farmers and who could deliver this most effectively. The greatness of Tribhuvandas Patel was in his understanding of his limitations and spotting of merit in Kurien. Kurien exhibited that trait – but to a very limited extent. His immense faith in colleague HM Dalaya is something that reverberates throughout the book. However, but for Dalaya we do not find any mention of many others who worked with him. It appears that the entire dairy cooperative movement was a long marathon run single-handedly by Kurien and only towards the end he found Amrita Patel to hand over the baton. And of course once Amrita started running the race, we found Kurien providing the expert comments on her performance, reminiscent of the expert comments Lala Amarnath used to provide on cricket matches, where he always took recourse to past.
There is an interesting episode narrated in the book about how Tribhuvandas Patel was made the chairman of the Kaira Union. At a meeting of dairy farmers, Morarjibhai asks for volunteers to serve as chairman of the organization. A few people volunteer but Tribhuvandas Patel is sitting quietly and Morarjibhai asks him if he wants to be the chairman for which Patel says no.. Morarjibhai makes him the Chairman and Kurien says “Morarjibhai probably believed that if somebody wanted to be the chairman badly enough, then he would definitely have some vested interest..” This is the contradiction with which Kurien has lived his life. That on the one hand he argues that the resources and destiny of the farmers should be put in their hand and they should be allowed to manage their own resources, at the same time they have to be protected from vested interests. In this sense Kurien as the chairman of Gujarat Milk Federation was a balancing factor because he had no vested interest, but at the same time, he was occupying the post of governance which going by the co-operative principles espoused by him should have been rightly occupied by a farmer. This contradiction of what he thinks is good for the farmer versus whether the farmer is ready to take on the responsibility is what has dictated the course of Kurien’s professional life. Indeed this is the contradiction which every bureaucrat faces when the question of empowerment of the disempowered come up, and Kurien’s attitude has not been significantly different from a person in the government, while he always claimed to be an outsider.
Kurien possibly never compromised on the good things in life – and he deserved them too. One of the curious things when we were on campus was to have a look at the Chairman’s car – always one of the best in town. During our days he used to be driven around in a Peugeot, and for us the wonder during those days was that the headlamps also had wipers!! Three instances in the book show us how important this was for Kurien. He first talks about his early days in Anand in the now-well-known garage where he started life [p.21]. In that garage, he has Anthony a cook-cum-butler who wears an impeccable white uniform to serve him dinner. Hardly a sight you would find in a garage type of residence, but that is Kurien for you. In the same page he says “those days I would frequently escape to Bombay, stay at the Taj Hotel and live it up for a few days…” When he steps down as Chairman of NDDB, he insists that Amrita takes his car, because it goes with the respect that it seemed to radiate and narrates an small incident as to how he was not recognised by the security guards of NDDB because he was not in the car. I also remember once when he came to address the faculty at IRMA, the room had been sprayed with a room freshner [having a horribly distinct smell of Jasmine]. He came in, sniffed around and told the faculty with a straight face – “this place smells like a brothel” He then looked around for effect, and after a long pause said ‘but how would you guys know how a brothel smelt, ask me..” the entire thing done exclusively for effect. That would be his style with any set of audience – be it local or international, students or intellectuals, professionals or practitioners. Some quotes from the book read as follows:
- I said to him right there in the Minister’s office “You bloody bastard. You come here, and speak lies to the Minister. I will castrate you”.[p.75]
- [In the IIMA board meeting while discussion why the graduates do not get motivated to work in development sector] “One of them [board member] took his cigar out of his mouth .. and said superciliously; So Dr. Kurien, you want our graduates to go and milk cows. I stood up, returned his look and said, “No, you continue to teach them how to suck on cigars.”[p.212]
This is vintage Kurien, who in his own opinion could never fail, could never be wrong and could never be anything less than god. Indeed in the book, there are no failures – the oilseeds experiment was a success, the fruit and vegetable foray was a success, the wasteland development foray was also a success. The only place where he accepts failure is in the salt experiment. In the process of winning battles and oratory, Kurien does not recognize his own internal contradictions. Sample this from the book:
“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 wron 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…..” [p.83]This was the problem with Kurien’s eloquence. While I was moved to tears when I heard the first thundering on a Brahmin standing behind a Harijan in the queue to supply milk, it did not significantly change the social fabric of the village. Indeed later I realized that this rule not only applies to milk supply but also to cinema tickets.. So it was not always true that eloquence won over reason. Certainly not in the long run.
“It was certainly true that the poorer the farmer, the greater the temptation for him to sell all the milk and earn more money for other essentials.. These arguments, however, hold no meaning for a starving man and it is unrealistic to say that this expensive food must be eaten by the poorest of our poor….”[p.147]
From a stage where more than 800 employees of NDDB tendering their resignation in solidarity with their chairman when the controversy over operation flood broke out, to walking out alone from an office which he reigned like an emperor without dissent is indeed a sad picture. Somewhere down the line, it appears that he got blinded by his conviction. It appears that he could not make a transition to an action hero to a character actor. It was the Dev Anand in him that kept him going an he never looked at a path similar to Amitabh Bachchan. In a way he learnt nothing from Tribhuvandas Patel and Ravi Mathhai on how to reign over a place, while not being in office. This possibly is the hall mark of a fighter, that he continued to fight and never give up. His early training in Boxing was coming a full circle.
My own personal moment of reckoning was a few years ago when I got a letter signed by the god himself inviting me to an academic seminar in IRMA to discuss the issue of Joint Ventures that NDDB was trying to implement. There were two days of deliberations, with arguments for and against, with the NDDB representative pleading that they would be happy to seek guidance from Kurien and were continuing to listen to him. At the end of the workshop I found that Kurien went and addressed the press about his own views on the subject. It was presented as if it was the consensus arrived at the workshop, while his address to the press had nothing in common with the deliberations. I felt badly let down by my hero. I felt used [not that my name or opinion was anything to reckon with, but it was indeed an insult to several people who had gathered there in all earnestness to discuss the issue on merit]. I was in tears because the hero had suddenly appeared very vulnerable. He was losing it and was not willing to look at it.
A sadder day was to follow. This was the day when he quit the position from the Gujarat Federation and they magnanimously agreed to retain his perks – a car for him and his wife, and a cook at his home. They just issued the orders that his assistant [who was on the rolls of the federation] be transferred to Kolkata. Not an honourable gesture to somebody who has laid his life at the service of people of an alien land. But how does Dr.Kurien react? Not be sending back the other perks, not by saying “enough is enough, I do not need any further favours from you” but by pleading that his assistant be retained. By arguing like a little child “you promised me all perks and Joseph is a part of the package..”
Certainly not a sight that his princes wanted to see of the Emperor. I only wish that the history will not be written by the last few years of Dr.Kurien which undermines the glorious golden years of his early life. I remember somebody telling me that Dr. Chotani who was an able lieutinent to Kurien wanted his building to be included in what was called the Kurien enclave in Anand though it did not fall into the natural boundary, just because he could have the name Kurien in his address… What an unnecessary fall. I hope this fall does not hurt him……
Cross Posted in Kannada at ಕನ್ನಡವೇ ನಿತ್ಯ.