Monday, 10 September 2012

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.   

28 comments:

  1. Nice one Shiv. Truly awed by the twists.
    R. C. Natarajan

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  2. Very well written, by one of the greatest Alumni of one of the best institutions founded by a wonderful human being and a visionary. Thanks for this

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  3. Yes. Your achievements are so significant that I am not even worthy of commenting upon your views, yet wanted to point out that you did carry the torch of daddu and as a IRMAN I am proud of that.
    Harsh PRM 22

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  4. We have always looked upto Dr Kurien and alumni like you, who carry the baton. Hope we have few more leaders who can inspire the generations to come ?

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    1. Many thanks Varun. I am sure more leaders will emerge, although Dr Kurien himself is irreplaceable.

      Rgds / Shiv

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  5. When I read about his death, I first thought about you Babu annayya - very well written. I can imagine how you feel.

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  6. Shiv, nice piece. Never realised that you had spent 7 long years in grofed! I guess the message is that we should get on with the 'purpose' and not get bogged down by organisational forms. The dogmatic adherence to the co-operative religion makes the Anand pattern more "exclusive" than inclusive.. I guess we need to appreciate the idea of plurality much more. Sriram

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    1. Thanks Sriram. Much appreciate your endorsing the idea of plurality in the means yet convergence in the ends...

      Rgds / Shiv

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  7. Amazing reading your thoughts, especially how you intertwined Dr Kurien's spirit ('purpose') into the cutting edge organisational design you created. Living in the world outside after IRMA, we forget the connections but never really lose the essence!

    I guess, each one of us from IRMA, gets this little bit of the spirit / purpose embedded in our DNAs, no matter where we choose to serve and Dr Kurien's vision has to be credited for it.

    Your tribute is befitting the man himself!

    Wasim (98-2000)

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    1. Many thanks Wasim. You are very right about IRMAns living that spirit in whichever spheres each one may be working!

      Rgds / Shiv

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  8. Dear Shiv - thank you for sharing your journey in the context of Dr. Kurien's vision and your experience at IRMA. Wonderful post. Haven't met Dr. Kurien but am so glad that through you and your work at ITC I have had an opportunity to understand the philosophy of rural management and rural enterprise in action. You had once mentioned that you met the first 'prototype' of the person who would be the profile of the 'sanchalak' for echoupal in your work at Gujrat Oilseeds ....and that reflection had helped me actually see how 'prototyping' in many ways is a continuous state of being..with a purposeful direction. Amul is a fantastic prototype, ITC eChoupal has evolved that further and built further nuances to rural management... Again, a wonderful post :-)

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    1. Thanks Parvathi.

      That's a smart way of describing how one could go about 'prototyping' :)

      Btw, the Sanchalak inspiration was from a farmer I had met during the IRMA fieldwork days...

      Rgds / Shiv

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  9. Dear Shiv,
    I think the IRMA years re-defined for most of us our life goals, of being able to make a difference in the lives of many rather than run after money and fame. Although working in the so called 'sector' was preferred by Dr. K, I think what you and many others IRMANS are doing even after going 'astray' is amazing. We are proud of you!

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  10. Thanks Emmanuel.

    'Going astray' is a nice expression!

    Rgds / Shiv

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  11. Dear Sir,

    Great article! In few lines, you gave us an opportunity to think beyond what generally one tend to think. Thank you sharing Dr. Kurien as well as your ideologies. Amul and eChaupal are legend Rural brands. These are benchmark for any other Rural Emerging model. Many will keep referring to these two models in time to come. Never thought that I will ever get a chance interact on one such platform.

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    1. Thanks Sandeep. Much appreciate your remarks.

      Rgds / Shiv

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  12. Interesting perspective Shiv, thought provoking and nice tribute to the legend!

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  13. Hi Shiv,

    Thank you for the wonderful tribute to Dr K. Many of us who left the "sector", have always at some level felt guilty for betraying the "cause". However like you most of us have never forgotten the lessons that we learnt at IRMA and we try and give back in the small ways possible.

    with regds

    Amit Poddar

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    1. Thanks Amit. That, indeed, is the spirit!

      Rgds / Shiv

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  14. Thanks for sharing the insights. 'Enterprise as a solution to poverty alleviation' is indeed one of the best bet in the ecosystem. It may be painfully slow but then is worth all the investment.

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