Exactly ten year ago, Dr Varghese Kurien, the man who made India self sufficient in milk, had come to Sri Lanka determined to replicate the "Anand model" and reduce the island's abject dependence on high cost, imported powdered milk.
But the laudable bid to bring about an indigenous White Revolution failed, not only because of the exertions of the stronger import lobby, but because of the unfavourable cultural, social and economic conditions in Sri Lanka.
Even today, 70 to 80% of the milk consumed in Sri Lanka is imported. It comes mainly from Australia and New Zealand. The cost, at SLRs. 2 billion ($ 17 million) a year, is high for a poor country.
The domestic selling price is high too, at SLRs 195 ( $ 1.7) for a 400 gram packet. It had increased 212% in the last ten years. The price will have been still higher if the government had not withdrawn the tax on imported powdered milk which was fetching it SLRs.3 billion ($ 26.5 million) in revenue per year.
Milk powder importers have been lobbying for a price hike citing a rapid rise in the price of milk in the international market. In March 2007, the price went up from $ 2,700 to $ 4,000 per tonne.
The Rajapaksa government in a dilemma over the pricing. On the one hand, it cannot alienate the people and on the other, it cannot allow the milk powder importers to go out of business and land the country in a mess.
Flaws in the system
It was to prevent such dilemmas and calamities that the former Indian National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) Chairman, Varghese Kurien, gave Sri Lanka the idea of increasing local milk production on the Anand model. He wanted to provide local milk producers with the wherewithal for breeding good cows, and preserving and selling the milk. Crores of rupees were invested in a joint venture in the island.
But the structure he built collapsed. While there were several reasons for this, including vigorous opposition from the influential import lobby, dairy expert Dr. DD Wanasinghe believes that the main reasons for the failure lay in the social, cultural and economic conditions in Sri Lanka.
There is no dairy culture in Sri Lanka as there is in India. "In India there is a dairy farming culture. The cows live with the farmers and the relations between the farmer family and the cattle are close. There are whole communities (castes) specializing in cattle rearing and dairying. This is not so in Sri Lanka," Wanasinghe told Hindustan Times.
There is a shortage of arable and grazing land. When agriculture itself is declining in Sri Lanka, it is not surprising that that dairying has not caught on. "Though the existing three private sector dairy farms are doing well, there is a general shortage of expertise in animal husbandry in the country," he said. Cattle imported from India and Australia died because of lack of expertise and resources, he pointed out.
Milk is not an important item of consumption in Sri Lanka unlike in north India or in the West. Milk is mostly used to make tea and for this very little is required. Powdered milk does not need refrigeration, but liquid milk needs a refrigerator, which neither the shops nor the house holds have.
"Most Sri Lankan women work and they have very little time to handle liquid milk. They find it easier to use powdered milk. Even mothers stop breast feeding and switch to powdered milk within three months because of a lack of time."
"Above all, Sri Lankans have got used to the taste of imported full cream powdered milk, and they consider it to be healthier than liquid milk locally procured," Dr Wanasinghe said.