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The Milk House: The White Revolution

Ryan Dennis Published on 11 February 2013

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This article was #5 of the Top 25 most well-read articles on www.progressivedairy.com in 2013. It was published in the Feb. 11, 2013 print issue.

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Click here for the full list of the Top 25.

Progressive Dairyman columnist Ryan Dennis gives readers a history lesson on India’s dairy industry. The White Revolution was the result of Operation Flood, a three-part project spanning 26 years.

Dennis wrote, “The government accepted donations of surplus milk powder and butter oil from the European Economic Community and channeled it only to the cooperatives. Without access to the surplus, multinationals were forced to buy milk from Indian farmers, boosting the domestic industry. In addition, it allowed cooperatives to make cheap products, which meant they could compete with the big companies.”

We asked Dennis,
Q. Why do you think this article was so popular with our audience? What feedback have you received on the piece?

Perhaps some of the interest for this article comes from that fact that not only is the experience of Indian dairy farmers vastly different from farmers in the western world, but that the story of their industry is a happy one. A country made itself better by believing and investing in its farmers, and the results echoed all the way to the patchwork of their society.

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One of the most interesting responses I received regarding the column was from an older gentleman that described his experience on the main island of Fiji, and how agriculture was connected to the culture of the different groups of people there. It’s both exciting and humbling to consider farming as having anthropological consequences in the bigger picture. PD

Ryan Dennis, columnist, The Milk House

ARTICLE:

Worldwide, most countries have seen the venture of dairy farming become more difficult these last few decades. The number of farms has decreased exponentially and margins have grown tighter. The last handful of years have witnessed farmers expressing these frustrations, from dumping milk in the Bulgarian mountain passes to protesters spraying it on government buildings in Brussels.

In fact, it seems agriculture only intersects with the general media to show farmers communicating disappointment in the industry, doubt in their government’s motivation to provide fair conditions and a belief that any change that is possible in the sector is also slow and ineffective.

The story is similar across most dairy-producing nations in the world – except one that has gone strangely untold and comes from a seemingly unlikely place.

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Under British control in 1945, India’s dairy industry was signed away to Polson Dairy, a multinational that, with its monopoly, scarcely paid farmers for their milk and charged consumers unwarranted prices. The next year, in the Kaira district, a close ally of Mahatma Gandhi led a milk strike and developed village cooperative societies to help, at least locally, cut out Polson’s involvement and secure reasonable money for area farmers.

The Indian dairy industry is far removed from the experience of most present-day farmers. The majority of the producers only have a few cows or buffalo – five would be a large herd.

People queue, with their stainless steel buckets in hand, at a desk inside a modest cooperative building for their milk to be checked for its fat percentage. Many villages still don’t have a cooling unit, so the milk is picked up twice a day amidst the 100-degree heat. Under these conditions, India has become the largest producer of milk in the world.

While profit margins improved for farmers in the Kaira district after the establishment of cooperatives in the late 40s, the rest of the country still suffered under the Polson monopoly and the industry as a whole was stagnant.

Sri Lanka, just off the tip of India, was also under the control of a multinational – Nestlé – and saw its farmers whittled away until it was only a place for imported milk to be processed. The fate of the Indian dairy industry, however, would be different, thanks to a young government that supported its farmers.

In 1964, the Indian prime minister visited Anand, where the largest cooperative in Kaira was located. He allegedly walked through the town until two in the morning, studying how the milk cooperative worked. He returned to Delhi and allowed the establishment of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) the next year.

Soon after, the Indian government commenced “Operation Flood” – arguably the largest and most successful government initiative in the modern history of dairy farming. The three-part project that spanned 26 years allowed cooperatives to be set up across the entire country, as well as invested in the infrastructure of the industry.

The government accepted donations of surplus milk powder and butter oil from the European Economic Community and channeled it only to the cooperatives. Without access to the surplus, multinationals were forced to buy milk from Indian farmers, boosting the domestic industry.

In addition, it allowed cooperatives to make cheap products, which meant they could compete with the big companies. Finally, the head of the NDDB convinced the World Bank to help fund Operation Flood (so named for the flood of Indian milk that resulted) with a loan that came without attachments.

The result of Operation Flood is sometimes called The White Revolution. The term is used without the slightest tongue-in-cheek. The investment in the dairy industry stimulated progress and development in a rural India that badly needed it.

Five cows could not send a family’s children to high school, but it could support their basic education and provide a supplemental income that changed their standards of living and circulated more money through the village.

While milk did not dissolve the strict class structures inherent to Indian culture, it did enhance the role of women, as they were usually the ones to tend the cows and buffalo, bringing in a substantial proportion of the family’s income.

Some semi-nomadic tribes, such as the Bharwad, opted to settle in one location due to the stability of income from milk cooperatives. It has also been suggested that milk even had the power to preserve peace. In 2002, violence broke out between Muslims and Hindus, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths.

Dairy-producing communities, however, remained safe. It has been stated that the cooperative structure in these villages has cultivated greater integration among its people, leading to more social stability.

Perhaps even more noteworthy in the story of India is that while the rest of the world races towards expansion, the Indian dairy industry didn’t seek an answer in mass production, but rather in the production of the masses.

Protests continue in Europe. The U.S. has tried various pricing structures for milk over the last several decades, all of them leaving farmers disillusioned. Australia struggles with low prices and reoccurring weather catastrophes. If anything, the example of India shows that not only is wholesale change possible, but a government investing in its dairy farmers can reverberate through the entire society. PD

Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family still dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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