Verghese ‘Amul’ Kurien has left behind two legacies for us to build upon. First, if farmers or producers are brought together to form a cooperative or an enterprise — which is governed professionally and facilitated by a direct market linkage creator with support for infrastructure, logistics, packaging and branding — it can not only bring about a milk revolution but also eradicate poverty. Second, farming is not a male dominion. Keeping the two points in mind, it’s now possible to channel our resources and focus into replicating the Amul story.
The recent HUNGaMA (hunger and malnutrition) report released by the prime minister reaffirms earlier data that shows that malnutrition continues to be alarmingly high in 100 districts with poor child development indices. But the report does not highlight another grim global statistic that could be true for India too: over 85% children of small and marginal farmers are malnourished. Can there be a greater case of injustice and inequity than the fact that the people who toil to put food on our plates are unable to feed their own children?
It is against this backdrop that the ongoing transformational story of Araku gives us some room for hope and peace for Kurien’s soul. In the Eastern Ghats, in the tribal heartland of Paderu region, lies the Araku Valley. Here, in seven out of the 11 tribal mandals, small farmers have become part of the largest coffee cooperative in India, probably in the world too. For 10 years, they have worked hard to combine organic farming with cooperative governance and wealth distribution to promote social indices like nutrition, safe motherhood and education. The 100,000 adivasis benefited through the ‘Araku model’ are slowly getting out of poverty. What is also becoming history here is Maoist violence.
The success of the Araku model can be attributed to the following factors:
n Both men and women are farmers. All able-bodied adult members of every family work in fields to maximise productivity. Women empowered with equal rights ensure that a part of their lands’ produce takes care of their nutritional security, and the resulting income goes towards health and education. Also, each household is treated as a ‘farming unit’.
n Farmers are aggregated into a cooperative and not the other way round. The Araku cooperative was formed — and is run — on the strict principles of transparency, democracy and objectivity. The 30-member board that governs farmers is annually elected by over 450 farmers. They are elected by farmers from their respective villages, who are members of the cooperative.
n The cooperative learned early about the need for an Amul-like organisation, which could do a quality upgradation of not just soil and agriculture practices but also of post-harvest challenges like processing, curing and exports. They found this through a local NGO, which has now created a new marketing enterprise to create an aspirational brand out of Araku in the same way as Amul. Farmers today get five times higher prices for coffee than they used to get in the past.
n Financial discipline was introduced by disbursing, on a quarterly basis the one-time sale proceeds of an annual crop like coffee. This means that farmers, like corporations, can now plan their expenditure on a quarterly basis. This has eliminated the need for moneylenders and middlemen. By giving sales proceeds round the year, as well as by giving ‘emergency loans’, the cooperative has given farmers the security of having cash at their disposal throughout the year.
The Araku model has expanded its scope in the last two years. Two million fruit trees have been planted and carbon levels under the soil ‘fixed’ to offset carbon emissions.
The challenge is: do the mandarins of power have the will and the audacity to turn the agriculture sector on its head and make it more cooperative-friendly than corporate-friendly? If yes, farmers will realise Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of self-reliant villages and also produce enough to feed millions of people. More importantly, like Kurien, who prepared India’s dairy sector to embrace the economic reforms on our own terms, the Araku model could be the way to ensure that farmers don’t get affected by FDI in the retail sector.
Manoj Kumar is CEO, Naandi Foundation, which is working with the Araku coffee farmer cooperative
The views expressed by the author are personal