When Shyam Benegal was awarded the Dada Saheb Phalke award recently, my mind went back to one of the first films of Shyam Benegal’s that I had seen – Manthan. It was probably also the first so called Art Film that I had seen and possibly the only film ever to be sponsored by Indian farmers,
Manthan comes to the screen courtesy of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation and follows the progress of a team who set out to start a milk co-op in rural Gujarat. Led by a veterinary surgeon (a character based on the now famous Dr Kurian), the milk co-op workers soon find their path blocked by greedy middlemen intent on exploiting the villagers. Of course, as always, the good guys win but the movie is a poster child for the then dreamy eyed cooperative movement and how it was a solution to all social ills.
In today’s world, when the cooperative movement is limping and losing the race to the corporatization of the retail sector, the story of how the milkmen of Gujarat organized themselves to set up the flagship of the cooperative movement seems almost nostalgic and poignant.
For with the advent of big business houses and the corporotization of every thing in sight, we are the witnesses to the end of an era that Benegal’s movie held out as idyllic.
There was a time when apart from the milk cooperatives, which after Gujarat were replicated in several states, there were several others: Tamil Nadu’s Cooptex, the Mother Dairy and New Delhi’s Super Bazar which were household names. Today, the Super Bazar is closed and its flagship store in Delhi’s Connaught Place is up for sale with the Reliance group as one of the bidders, Mother Dairy functions as a quasi corporate competing with Amul which conceived it and apart from the Amul Brand, many of the state level cooperatives are so only in name functioning almost as extension of government departments and kept alive on government subsidies. It would seem that the time for cooperatives has come and gone and the last man standing and talking for cooperatives is the ageing warhorse, Varghese Kurian. At one time, it was held up as the ideal no exploitative mechanism to ensure that the producers of goods and commodities got a fair deal.
Although greed, exploitation and poverty have not gone away and will not go away for a long time, the world and solutions presented by Manthan is all but over. No body is chasing the dream rainbow of the cooperative movement as even a possible option that might favor small time retailers by marrying them with modern technology and professional management. In fact, Varghese Kurian used to describe himself as the employee of the farmers of Gujarat with Tribhuvandas K. Patel a farmer’s leader and cooperative member and Congress politician as his boss and mentor. Patel himself went on to win the 1963 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
Practically his entire life, Dr. Kurian delivered speeches to convince and prove that the small time farmer, producer and retailer could be challenged and empowered to take on the mightiest challenger in the marker place if professionals would come along side and lend their expertise to an organized cooperative. In fact , one of the first marketing feats of the Gujarat milk cooperatives way back then was to break the monopoly of the multi national Polson in the Bombay market. That was a land mark achievement that demonstrated to the world that organized milk producers wearing the Gandhi topi aided by technology and guided by experts could tap into a market that was run and managed by suited and booted multi national executives.
Amul was an example to many that it was possible to scale up operations many fold and still uphold international standards of quality, some thing not usually associated when the folks at the end of the chain are small time farmers and milk producers whose popular caricature in the public eye is that of one adept at mixing as much of water as possible in the dairy product that he passed off as milk. Today as corporate chains enter the retail sector in droves and even groups like Wal-Mart are set to come in months, I find that even those who oppose their entry would leave consumers at the mercy of small time unorganized vendors rather than espouse the cause of cooperatives as a possible model to follow. Given the noteworthy success it has achieved in at least some sectors, I thought that it deserved a second look.
But perhaps today’s policy makers have not seen Manthan. May be now that Shyam Benegal has got the Phalke award, his producers will do a Naya Daur and release a digitized version of Manthan – maybe with a Rakhi Sawant item number thrown in. We deserve to be educated afresh that there are options between the thela pushing vendor and the sanitized environs of the neighborhood super market.