Dr Verghese Kurien – Inspiration to a Rural Manager

Replicating the Anand Pattern of Cooperatives, across India, under Operation Flood required a large number of suitably trained young people into their management cadres. The supply of graduates from India’s then existing schools of management was too small to fill this demand; in any case, very few of those graduates were motivated to work for cooperatives.

To serve this need, if Dr Kurien had simply chosen to expand the capacity of NDDB’s Management Training Cell and / or sponsor a Centre for Cooperative Management in one of the IIMs, my career would have moved along a different path. Instead he chose to set up the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), visualizing the necessity of a new discipline called “rural management”. Till then, as a norm, “business” pre-fixed “management” and “development” suffixed “rural”!

To me, a firm believer in the power of “and” versus the tyranny of “or”, this new fusion concept appealed instantly, and I decided that IRMA would be the place for me as I finish my under-graduation the following year (1981). That even the first batch of IRMA didn’t graduate yet, or that the very discipline wasn’t defined well, added to the lure!

In a 1980 seminal paper, titled “A New Institute of Rural Management – And a New Developmental Discipline?”, Dr Michael Halse, then a Food and Agriculture Organisation Advisor with the National Dairy Development Board wrote that “the rural manager’s tasks consist of dealing simultaneously with a series of interacting systems: (a) the social and institutional system whereby humans relate to each other, formally and informally; (b) the physical and technical systems, whereby man exists within the biosphere and practices agriculture in order to manipulate these systems to human advantage, and (c) the economic systems whereby humans exchange the fruits of each other’s labours and (if they are lucky) save and invest in order to improve their lives in future times.”

He argued that “the practice of rural management requires sensitivity to the priorities and needs of the society, dominated as it is by the culture of poverty.” “The study and teaching of rural management as a discipline must grasp, and adapt for its purposes, modern management’s observational skills, analytical techniques and decision making practices, applying them innovatively to the tasks of rural development and the elimination of rural poverty.”

I am sure, all that Dr Halse had to do, while writing this paper, was to reproduce Dr Kurien in action, into words…

After passing out of IRMA in 1983, I joined Gujarat Cooperative Oilseeds Growers’ Federation (GROFED), promoted by NDDB under a project to restructure the oilseeds & edible oils sector replicating the Anand Pattern of cooperatives.

After spending nearly seven years in GROFED, I came to the conclusion that Anand Pattern was not going to work in the oilseeds sector because the market dynamics were very different from those of milk. I moved out of the cooperative sector, and joined ITC which had just diversified into the branded edible oils business. Thereafter, I met Dr Kurien only occasionally during my infrequent visits to IRMA or NDDB; I was an “unwelcome guest”, having moved to the corporate sector…

Years later, with the conceptualisation of eChoupal within ITC, I became a “complete defector” because this model goes against two of the core tenets of the Anand Pattern viz. (1) farmer owned enterprise controlling the whole value chain, and (2) eliminating the middlemen to directly connect the farmer and the consumer.

ITC eChoupal is not owned by farmers in “form”, but, as an organization that can thrive only by being ultra-responsive to the farmers’ needs, it delivers similar outcomes for the farmers. And, that, without the limitations imposed by a typical “democracy in practice”! In fact, the eChoupal tag line “Kisano ke hith mein, kisano ka apnaa”, is inspired by Bhola’s (Naseeruddin Shah) dialogue from Manthan, “Yeh sisoty apdi cheh” (this is our society)

ITC eChoupal does recognize that the middlemen are bad, but more importantly, also recognizes that they provide crucial linkages along the value chain in an economy where the required institutional infrastructure is absent. Leveraging the unique capabilities of these middlemen, yet disintermediating them from the transmission of information flow & market signals was at the core of eChoupal model that empowers the famers.

Two years after eChoupal was launched, I got a chance to meet Dr Kurien at an event in Delhi, where we were co-panelists, and I could share these perspectives with him. Not only did he appreciate the insights and the nuances of our business model, but he immediately allowed ITC eChoupal to recruit IRMA graduates from the campus, otherwise reserved for select partner organizations.

A few more years later, in 2007, this news item in Business Standard marked a high point in my career as a rural manager: “Nandan Nilekani of Infosys and S Sivakumar of ITC rub shoulders with Mohammad Yunus and Verghese Kurien as messiahs of development in a new report on poverty alleviation penned by the World Bank”

With the passing away of Dr Kurien yesterday, I lost a valued guru; but the spirit of his idea – ‘enterprise as a solution to poverty alleviation’ – remains an inspiration to me to innovate different institutional forms to suit diverse contexts of rural India.