AHMEDABAD: Death, wrote Scottish playwright poet Sir Walter Scott, is not the last sleep, but the "last and final awakening". Verghese Kurien, who passed away in the wee hours of Sunday near Anand in Gujarat at the age of 90, would have agreed.
After all, he knew a thing or two about awakenings: The Syrian Christian by birth but bornagain atheist was a messiah to millions of modest milkmen whom he empowered at the expense of predatory middlemen by founding the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF); he built the Amul brand of dairy products and went on to replicate its success nationwide with the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB); he then launched Operation Flood, or the White Revolution, which as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted in a condolence message is responsible for making "India the largest milk producer in the world. His greatest contribution was to give aposition of pre-eminence to the farmer..."
Like most leaders of awakenings, Kurien was fiery, blunt and controversial. Multinationals faced the brunt of his fire, and ire, over the decades. Way back in 1956, he stormed out of a Nestle board meeting in Switzerland when the dairy multinational was reluctant to "let natives handle a sensitive commodity like milk". In 2008, two years after he resigned as GCMMF chairman in the wake of increasing dissent against him from board members, he thundered (in a chat with ET): "When we started, there were Cadbury, Horlicks, Nestle, Polson ahead of us. Where are they now?" And two years ago, he was exhorting the country's milk producers to unite against MNC "opportunists".
The man who won a host of top local and international honours, from the Wateler Peace Prize and World Food Prize to the Padma Vibhushan — many felt he deserved a Bharat Ratna and perhaps even a Nobel Peace Prize — was also an enfant terrible of sorts. Unconventional to a fault, he had a reputation for not dressing up his thoughts and actions in political correctness. In 2001, Kurien was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the ET Awards for Corporate Excellence, which he shared with Reliance Industriesfounder Dhirubhai Ambani.
Kurien often yearned for life beyond Anand, a village with 10,000 people, and would periodically escape to Mumbai for the weekends. "I would dress up nicely, put on my green felt hat and 'misbehave', waiting for the government to accept my resignation as a dairy engineer posted in Anand," he once told ET, only half in jest. A few years ago, when he was asked about the imminent entry of a fresh set of multinationals, he minced few words when he declared that "we will take their pants off ".