September 3, 1986

Third Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial IFFCO Lecture

The Third Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial IFFCO Lecture on Cooperation


By V Kurien


National Dairy Development Board

Anand 388 001

September 3, 1986

Mr. Chairman, co-operators, ladies and gentlemen:

I must begin by expressing my sincere thanks to IFFCO for having honoured me by your invitation to deliver the Third Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture on Cooperation. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who provided the inspiration for development of the cooperative movement and, may I say, gave us in Kaira District considerable encouragement in the early days of our efforts. The pleasure I feel in delivering a lecture that honours our late prime Minister is all the more keen in that today you also honour Shri Tribhuvandas Patel, a co-operator and a man for whom I have the most profound respect. He is my Guru.

Let me digress for a moment to tell you how I became involved in this field called cooperation. I was, after all, trained to be an engineer. After my return from post graduate studies in the United States, and much to my dismay, I was posted to a little town called Anand. It was, I felt at the time, akin to the fate of a bonded labour and my only consolation was that the term was not too long. It was there in Anand that I got mixed up with some Gandhians, including Shri Tribhuvandas Patel. It was he who became my guru and moulded me into a useful instrument as an employee of the farmers of Kaira District. This was the best thing that has ever happened to me. Rather than wasting my days as one of our urban elite, I have lived a life of great personal satisfaction and happiness, serving the farmers who employ me. Guided by Tribhuvandas Patel, I learned to respect and to place faith in the farmer, a faith that has been rapid manyfold. Some have found it strange that a man from Kerala, a Christian, a product of our educated elite, could come to be accepted in the villages of Kaira district. This speaks first and foremost to the respect in which Tribhuvandas Patel is held, a respect for his essential goodness, his commitment to cooperation and to the Gandhian way of life, a way of life that reverberates in the basic morality, decency and honesty of rural India. Tribhuvndas Patel represents the ideal of cooperation and what cooperation can achieve for India. His selection as IFFCO’s co-operator of the year is an honour well-deserved a long overdue.

As much as I was pleased to accept an invitation that honours both Jawaharlal Nehru and Tribhuvandas patel, my pleasure was tinged with some apprehension. It has always been my way to speak frankly on the subject of cooperation and my views have not always found favour without cooperative establishment. Some have even suggested that “Kurien is no co-operator.” I asked myself was this an invitation to the fox to enter the hen house; or was I the lamb being invited to sup in the lion’s den. This caused me to ponder the subject of their talk. Should I deliver an academic discourse on the successes of the world’s largest cooperative movement? Or, perhaps, focus on its shortcomings. It occurred to me, however, that the people gathered in this room represent not only the leadership of the cooperative movement, but also senior political leaders and officers of our government the people whose hands can shape the future of our cooperative movement, for better or for worse. I thought then that I ought speak from the heart.

It was 25 years ago that Jawaharlal Nehru delivered a much quoted, but perhaps less read, talk on “Cooperation and the Mind of the Villager.” It was in this talk that he said, “My outlook is to convulse India with the Cooperative Movement….” Much of what he said in that brief talk is relevant to us today as we look at the role of cooperatives in our nation’s leap forward to the 21st century.

We Indians today have much to be proud of. In the short span of our independence we have created an industrial infrastructure that can build nuclear power plants and satellites when only 40 years ago we could not make a simple safety pin. There is no doubt in my mind that we shall soon stand with pride and dignity amongst the world’s most powerful nations. What concerns me, however, is that, once powerful, we exercise that power with wisdom and for good. Many nations have achieved power; far fewer have employed it wisely. And, while our nation has made great progress, that progress is uneven. We sit today in a most magnificent hall, the abode of science. How many of our village schools have even a rudimentary laboratory to teach our children the ways in which science can benefit mankind? Delhi and other major cities have beautiful roads with soaring fly-overs; how many of our villages have an all-weather road to link our farmers with markets? Here in Delhi are medical facilities to compare with most in the world. How many of our villages have a 25 paisa drop of medicine to protect the eyes of newborn child from blindness? Delhi has magnificent fountains that spray water in front of coloured lights at night. How many of our villagers have a clean water supply, much less electricity in their homes? We rightfully take pride in our own nuclear power plants. But our farmers produce the daily necessities of our lives using tools and technology that are centuries old.

Lest I be misunderstood, we have done much to improve life for the 75 percent of our population that lives in the rural area; but their progress has not matched that of our cities. Their productivity, through it has increased greatly, lags well behind that of their urban brethren. And, most important, their wisdom, their courage, their great energy lies largely untapped as we race ahead towards the next century.

Twenty-five years ago Jawaharlal Nehru addressed this very point. He said, “I do not accept the statement often made that the Indian peasant is so frightfully conservative that you cannot make him come out of (His0 rut. He is a very intelligent person – given the chance – only a little cautious, only wanting some proof, some evidence of what he is asked to do …. and not taking too much for granted. Now that makes Cooperation in India for the rural people absolutely essential.” He went on to say, “our whole mental approach was for a constitution and a living structure of society to be built on this approach and these principles of cooperation…. therefore the whole future of India really depends on the success of this approach of ours.”

Last year, in an interview with CERES, an FAO review, our present Prime Minister said, “The agrarian economy has made a particularly impressive advance wherever local institutions are fully developed. Cooperatives, particularly in the field of milk, sugar and oilseeds, are examples of what the ‘uneducated and low-skilled’ Indian farmer can achieve.”

What we must ask ourselves today is whether we have listened to the wisdom of Jawaharlal Nehru. Have we built the local institutions that unleash the energies, intelligence and productivity of our rural population? The answer, I fear, is that we have done a little; far too little.

Jawaharlal Nehru had a vision of cooperation: he was not interested in numbers but rather cooperatives as a vehicle to change the ways in which our rural people think. He didn’t want lakhs of cooperatives in India so that we might boast of having the world’s largest cooperative movement; he wanted to “make the cooperative approach the common thinking of India.”

In his talk 25 years ago, Jawharlal Nehru also pointed to the problems that might block the realization of his vision. He said, “that is why we do not want, as in the past, the District Official, or any other official, to throw his weight about too much. Again, he is the adviser and friend, but not the boss.” He continued, “… we wanted to draw the mind of the people out of the old conception of some big officials sitting on top and ordering about people to do things…”

He had faith in our rural people and remarked, “… theirs will be the decision and if they make mistakes, they will suffer for them and learn from them.”

What, we might ask, would Jawaharlal Nehru say today if he read our cooperative act? What would be his reaction to treating cooperative elections as an extension of national and state politics? Would he be pleased with registrars intervening in every aspect of a cooperative’s activities, with government officers serving as managers and even as the managing committees of cooperatives? Would he not say, as I say to you, the time has come to return our cooperative movement to its members?

Cooperation in India is as old as our very civilization. Without cooperation the village could not survive. Our colonial masters introduced only the formal structured of cooperation. But in promoting cooperatives they lacked faithful in our people, and so they created the Registrar; the friend, philosopher and guide to ensure that no one ran off with the case. Thus the Registrar became god. With independence, our civil servants found that being god was enjoyable. And our political leaders discovered that being the boss of god was even more pleasurable. As we attempted to encourage our cooperative movement with money and support, we increased government control over the movement. With every benevolent gesture, we struck down the very principles that are the heart of cooperation: democratic decision making; voluntary membership; neutrality in race, religion and politics. It is no surprise, then, though no less disheartening, to see an advertisement for a cooperative federation that says, ‘a government of Rajasthan enterprise.”

Our leaders in the fight for freedom, Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, saw that struggle in terms of freeing our people not from the oppression of the British, but from the oppression of foreign values. The cooperative system, as organised by the British and ruled by a registrar, was based on foreign values. It was, and is, alien to over culture and genius.

It has been with sorrow and distress that those of us who hoped to see cooperatives bloom after independence have seen that while political power had been transferred, the approach to cooperation has remained the same. Scant heed has been paid to Gandhi’s words: “Cooperation, which is rooted in the soil, always succeeds.” Regrettably, our departments of cooperation have more often seen it as their duty to uproot cooperatives that have sprung from our native soil, always succeeds.” Regrettably, our department of cooperation have more often seen it as their duty to uproot cooperatives that have sprung from our native soil and have sought to spread cooperatives as vehicles of policy, firmly rooted in the bureaucracy, a soil in which they may exist, but where they will never flourish.

What might have happened had we remained constant in the vision of Gandhi, of Nehru and, I might add, Tribhuvandas Patel ? What would have been the result if we had unleashed our cooperatives, had we placed our faith in our farmers, had we linked their power with professional management? I have no doubt that we would have transformed our rural areas, empowering our farmers, allowing them to direct their own destinies. Our democracy would have been strengthened at the grass roots as our rural people learned to use wisely the power and responsibility of one man with one vote. Economic Justice would have been achieved in far greater measure if exploitation by money lenders, traders and vested interests was curbed by cooperation. Social justice, too, would have been advanced by the lessons of cooperation where rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, Brahmin and Harijan unite for the common good.

While some of this potential has been realised, it is too little. Our dreams too often have been dashed on the shoals of politics, bureaucracy and disregard of the fundamental principles of cooperation. What should have been a people’s movement has been officialised, bureaucratised and politicised. It is not necessarily wrong that a political person serves as a cooperative leader; it is wrong when political purposes are advanced at the expense of the principles and purposes of cooperation. It is not necessarily wrong when a government officer serves a cooperative; what is wrong is when there is no accountability to the members, or where the members’ desire for responsibility is blocked. Men become responsible when responsibility is given, not when it is withheld.

It is by no means too late to rebuild our cooperative movement. Those in this room can play the manor role in recreating the environment where cooperatives can achieve the vision Jawaharlal Nehru placed before the nation twenty-five years ago. You – men and women of ability, good will, and belief in the principles of cooperation – can open the door to the cooperative commonwealth that was Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream.

The first and most important step is to frame and enact new cooperative laws, in the states and at the centre. Such laws should embody the principles of cooperation – not their negation. They should incorporate the principle that government governs best which governs least. They must place full responsibility with the members of cooperatives, for to deny responsibility is to deny our people the opportunity to learn to be responsible. As Jawaharlal Nehru said, they will make mistakes and they will suffer from those mistakes. But they will learn suffer from those mistakes. But they will learn from them. We must, in our new cooperative laws, redefine the responsibilities of the registrar. Regulation, protection of the interests of the members, is the legitimate role of Government; management of cooperatives is not. Cooperatives must be given the freedom to manage their own affairs, without the interference of government in every decision. We must seek, through legislation, to product the cooperative from narrow political interests, thereby encouraging the broader national interest. A new cooperative law must define a true cooperative: we must end the farce of so-called cooperatives and federations that operate as businesses often in competition with their constituents and even with their members. Can we call an enterprise that purchases from the private trade a cooperative when the primary member has been exploited by that trade? We must, in our new laws, recognize the roles, responsibilities and accountability of the professional manager, for a cooperative that fails as an enterprise will fail as a vehicle of service to its members. Our new law must not just allow, but must require our cooperatives, unions and federations to freely elect their own leaders. A cooperative law that embodies each cooperative principle and which enables cooperatives to flourish; a cooperative law based not on alien values, but one that reflects our unique national genius.

The second step we must take is to encourage cooperative enterprise through policies, law and regulation. Should we tax cooperatives at the same rate as a corporate enterprise? Our dairy, oilseed and other cooperatives manage major developmental efforts. Taxation simply retards their capital formation, requiring government to give, through share contribution, what it takes away as taxes. Licensing policies should weigh the contribution of cooperatives to their members. Priority should be given to cooperatives engaged in processing of agricultural products purchased from their members. Similarly, such cooperatives should receive priority in provision of water, power and rail connections: they serve the farmer, not a handful of corporate share holders. Their benefits enrich the rural area, not drain it of resources. Cooperatives should have priority access to finance: controls designed to inhibit speculation in commodities should clearly not be applied to cooperatives that seek to benefit both producers and consumers. Last, but certainly not least, prices of agricultural commodities should be an inventive to the producer: stable and remunerative. If the producer is confident that he will received a fair price, he will invest in improved productivity. Cooperatives can only pay such a price if they can do so profitably. Large scale imports of commodities can only depress local prices, creating a disincentive for our own producers in order to please the urban consumer for, if we do so, it is only at the cost of diminished productivity and higher prices in the long term.

The third step is as difficult to realise as it is simple; we must place faith in our farmers. Those of us in this room rare, by the large, products of our educated elite. We have all the advantages of superior education and training. We hold positions of authority and responsibility. Let us rediscover the truth that the unlettered villager is often the wisest of teachers and that, without our guidance and direction, the villager survives and even thrives in conditions we could not face. Every day the village farmer faces challenges and responsibilities far greater than ours. Why then should we not place our faith in him and let him be responsible for his own destiny? I have been an employee of farmers for close to forty years. I can assure you that faith in our farmers will not prove misplaced.

The fourth and last step we should take is to restore the purity and integrity of our cooperative movement. The cooperative can be a powerful force for constructive change in our villages but only if its leaders behave with decency, honesty and integrity. As Mahatma Gandhi once wrote, “The cooperative movement will be a blessing to India only to the extent that it is a moral movement.” Each of us, whether a cooperative leader, an employee, or an official, has a sacred trust to ensure that our cooperative movement is a moral movement. We must relentlessly and courageously expose those who seek to exploit the movement for personal gain. Today, 25 years after Jawaharlal Nehru presented his vision of an India convulsed by cooperation, we do have achievement to be proud of. We have cooperatives that will stand comparison with any in the world. Yet, we have fallen far short of Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision: our cooperatives have not changed the outlook of our rural poor, they have not enabled our farmers to seize control of their destiny and thus contribute to the grander destiny of our nation. But the potential is there. We have leaders and officials of vision, ability and good will who can join hands to create the laws and policies that will unleash our cooperative movement. We have men and women of integrity who can protect and nurture a moral cooperative movement. We have men and women of integrity who can protect and nurture a moral cooperative movement. We have men and women of integrity who can protect and nurture a moral cooperative movement. Most important, we have millions of our countrymen and women who have the courage, wisdom and energy to transform our nation, if we only give them that chance. Let me close then by asking each of you to join together, to cooperate, in great effort to convulse our India with cooperation, to build a nation where our rural and urban people stride, hand in hand, together into the 21st century.