The news that R.S. Sodhi, managing director of the iconic dairy products brand, Amul for the past 12 years has resigned, set in motion considerable speculation over the reasons for his exit. His leadership tenure spanned an era during which the organisation leapfrogged from a turnover of Rs. 8000 crores to Rs. 71000 crores.
Whatever the reasons for his departure, there is no doubt that Amul and its dairy products will continue to be one of the country’s best-known and loved Indian brands for a long time. Not only its products but its ad campaigns are looked forward to every week as the Amul girl comments pithily on anything and everything under the sun.
While Sodhi, by all accounts, has been a marketing innovator and led the company to great heights, its creation and the germs of its tremendous success took place shortly before independence. And ultimately its formation had ramifications for the entire country. The milk cooperative society movement that spawned Amul was forged at Anand in the Kaira district of Gujarat in 1946 under the leadership of Sardar Patel and Morarji Desai. They came to the rescue of milk farmers who were then being exploited and treated unfairly on payment issues fair by the government of then Bombay.
Their leader, Tribhuwandas Patel sought advice from the Sardar who advised him to form a milk cooperative society at Anand itself. The initial venture was a tiny one but it expanded ultimately to become the genesis of a state-wide cooperative societies union - the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF). It was a little later, in 1950 that Verghese Kurien, later to be known as the Father of the White Revolution, joined to assist the new venture.
The Kaira Union managed to set up pasteurising plants near the dairies and then went even further in the mid-50s to set up a butter and cheese-producing factory. It took the name Amul from the Sanskrit word, Amulya, or priceless. It expands into Anand Milk Union Limited. As a result of the formation of the milk cooperative, dairy farmers could get remunerative prices for their products for the first time. The establishment of the butter factory made their lives even better.
The success of the Anand-based milk cooperative societies impressed Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri so much that he sought to replicate it all over the country. Kurien was roped in to lead the way as the head of a newly formed National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). The Amul model was then implemented in other states. And the rest, as they say, is history.
For younger readers of this article, there would be no memory of a time when milk, butter, and the entire range of dairy products were not freely available and plentiful in India. But I recall in the early sixties that milk was virtually rationed in the nation’s capital under the then-Delhi Milk Scheme. Our mothers used to queue for hours outside small booths where they were given tokens for the number of milk bottles allotted to them. To keep a large family like ours supplied with enough milk, my mother befriended the young women managing the booths. This ensured that we were provided enough milk to make curd and homemade butter for all at home. Everyone was not so lucky. Shortages of milk and milk products were part of life.
The booths would be surrounded by hordes of people who had been queueing for a long time when the milk truck came and unloaded its precious stock of bottles. It was a difficult task for those manning the booths to handle the unruly crowds.
Many middle-class families preferred to procure milk through the traditional “gawaalas” or dairy farmers who kept milch cattle like cows and buffalos. It was felt this milk was purer and had more genuine fat content than the pasteurised and homogenised milk provided by DMS.
The whole scenario changed rapidly when NDDB was set up in 1965. A different set of booths were set up by the newly formed Mother Dairy and milk flowed freely from vending stations just by putting in the right number of tokens. And, most amazing of all, there was no limit on the amount of milk that could be purchased from these outlets. Suddenly, the DMS booths were shut down. Some old sheds are still visible in many parts of Delhi but are being used for other purposes.
Amul which sparked off this milk revolution all over the country, termed Operation Flood at the time, went on to become one of the biggest dairy companies in the world. The advertising for the company has also been innovative with the Amul girl’s comments on current affairs splashed on big hoardings in major cities. It went beyond mere advertising and came to define the idea of Amul, which was young and contemporary. The idea of the mascot was conceived by ad agency ASP in 1967 and she has gone on to give commentary on issues as diverse as the Emergency and cricket matches.
As for Amul itself, it has become the world’s eighth-largest dairy processing venture. It now manufactures a wide range of dairy products including ice cream, milk-based drinks, and chocolate. As a result of replicating the Anand model, India has also emerged as the largest milk producer globally. The white revolution as it has been called, not only ensured that milk and milk products are available in plenty throughout the country, but also that farmers are given a fair price for their output.
Right now there is controversy over the change of guard at the top in Amul, but it becomes an occasion for us to look back on the history of not just a brand but the development of an emerging economy. It should be humbling for many large corporates to recognize that the powerful dairy brand Amul was created by a group of small farmers who showed that the cooperative movement can change the destiny of a nation.