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A vale of a tale
Even as the nation mourned the sad demise of Dr Verghese Kurien, 'India's milkman', his passing brought to mind reminiscences of my brief but notable association with him in Jammu & Kashmir about a decade ago, when I was in the Army. Several projects had been taken up by the Army to provide some necessary succour to the people in the 1990s. These included repairing schools, building culverts and bridges, assisting locals to reconstruct mosques damaged by terrorists and extending medical help in many remote areas of the state, to name but a few. People were grateful and often appreciated these endeavours as the quality of their day to day lives improved. Even so, we were still searching for that one big idea, a single initiative that would benefit practically everyone. Then one day as I sat over my morning cuppa, an idea struck: why not a milk cooperative?
Of course, soldiering was my forte;I did not know the first thing about dairying and even less about starting a cooperative milk processing plant. I knew that there was one man who I could possibly turn to, Verghese Kurien, and so I did. I imagined that getting an appointment to see him would not be easy. I could not have been more mistaken. Not only was Dr Kurien immediately interested but he also insisted on coming to my office to get to better understand the proposal firsthand. When he did arrive in my office - despite my protestations, that in deference to his busy schedule and failing health, I should visit him at his convenience instead - he spent four times as long as the precious half hour that his planned schedule had allowed.
One of the things that struck me immediately was his humility and near-saintly demeanour. His opening gambit also said something about his keen sense of humour. "Tell me, why would an Army general want to know about dairying... are you retiring soon (and want to take it up)?" he queried, smiling wryly. "No, Sir, nothing like that, it's to do with Kashmir, " was all I could say in response. The mention of Kashmir immediately made him adopt a more businesslike expression. He listened patiently even as I explained, in rather extensive fashion, the Army's 'WHAM' (Winning hearts and minds) campaign. "We will do it, general, we have to do this for Kashmir, " he said at conversation's end.
He went on to ask me if I could arrange to send a team of 'honest, dedicated and sincere leaders' from Kashmir to Anand, the heart of Amul country, for briefings and discussions. "You ask for much, Dr Kurien, " I replied, trying hard to match his humour, "such people are hard to find these days. " He smiled genially and said "I quite understand, but then could you get some empowered people who can move things forward?" It was my turn to smile now, and I said "I could request the chief minister to come with a team. "
Dr Kurien, was visibly delighted and settled the issue with, "Wonderful. Do that, general. Let's meet in Anand soon. " Before long a team led by the enthusiastic chief minister, Mufti Muhhamed Sayeed, arrived in Anand. I accompanied them, but with some reluctance. After all, the Army was only to be a catalyst, but Mufti saheb insisted. Dr Kurien personally briefed the team. We were given guided tours of the plant and the facilities. We experienced how ordinary folks brought milk to the cooperatives, in quantities ranging from barely a litre, usually in a lota, to big cans;and how they were promptly paid for it in that famously organised manner, with nary a fuss.
Back at the briefing room, a rather keen Dr Kurien was waiting. He generously offered a soft loan to set up the first processing plant in Kashmir, "You can pay it back as and when you start production, " he urged. But then he turned to me and whispered in my ear, "Between you and me, general, they need not repay the loan!"
Things moved rather quickly from then on. A team from Anand visited the Kashmir Valley to make assessments son after. Driven by Dr Kurien's singular sense of purpose, a cooperative milk processing unit commenced operations at Chashma-e-Shahi in Srinagar in less than a year. For an elaborate inauguration ceremony in 2004, Dr Kurien was invited as the chief guest and honoured befittingly by the state government. Starting a milk processing plant in J&K was a unique enterprise and perhaps, in terms of true benefits reaching the people of the state, one of the largest in the last decade. Dr Kurien's famous 'white revolution' had truly reached the northern-most extremities of our nation. "We will do it for Kashmir, " he had said, with that famous twinkle in his eye.
The writer, a retired Lt general of the Indian army, commanded the Srinagar-based 15 Corps
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