Technology Missions - Section 08

The Edible Oils Mission was one programme where the primary motivation was economic. India had paid 1 billion dollars for imported cooking oils over the previous five years, even though there were significant areas of arable land suited for the domestic production of oil crops—soybeans, rapeseed, mustard seed and others. But Indian farmers weren’t growing them. Instead, they were planting wheat, rice and other crops that gave them higher monetary returns. This situation, characterized by unfavourable economics for farmers, was partly due to the fact that the oil industry was controlled by a small number of powerful families and by the exploitative activities of multinational oil interests.

To reverse this situation I called on Dr Verghese Kurien, a legendary figure in the Indian dairy industry. Kurien had done his graduate studies in the United States, then had returned to India and become involved, by chance, in the field of milk production. When he started out, India was importing large volumes of milk and milk powder. By the time I talked to him about the Technology Missions, he had turned the domestic dairy industry around to the point where India was exporting instead of importing milk. He had created a revolution. Under his guidance, some years later, India became the world’s largest milk producer, surpassing the United States.

Kurien was known globally as the ‘Father of the White Revolution’. He had created this near-miraculous turnaround by organizing farmers into large co-ops that could exert significant leverage on costs and prices, making milk production profitable for the small farmer. Kurien was a straight-talking, take-no-prisoners kind of individual, capable of running roughshod over political and industry obstruction. He simply would not sit still and watch while large interests exploited the Indian farmer. Over time he had become an ally and a good friend. When I asked if he would join in on our effort on edible oils, he agreed.

Our challenge in this sector was to create an environment where small Indian farmers would see the advantages of planting oilseed crops. That meant restructuring the marketing system and making improvements in crop technologies. Kurien brought in some of the same methods he used to revolutionize the dairy industry: cooperative production and marketing, adherence to standards, support for individual farmers and protection against unethical competition.

Kurien was head of the National Dairy Board, which was sitting on large cash reserves. When it was announced that the board was going to throw its weight behind the intervention on oil, the market panicked. Kurien, the Cabinet secretary and I would meet regularly to decide how much oil we would buy and at what price. When that was announced, the market would adjust to our figure, to the benefit of the small farmers.

By 1990, instead of importing oil, India was exporting oilcakes at the rate of 600 million dollars a year. The turnaround was all due to applying appropriate management methods, understanding and information, and giving small farmers a little bit of support. ‘We move into areas where there is gross exploitation,’ Kurien told one interviewer, ‘and try to restructure the marketing system so that the small producer is not fleeced by middlemen or oil kings.’

When we started working on the oilseed mission, Kurien suggested that it would be a good idea to have a mission on milk as well. He had turned the dairy market around through the massive reorganization of producers, but milk production itself had plateaued. A mission on dairy could mobilize the application of technologies to improve breeding, animal health and fodder production. We could significantly enhance milk production. When we launched this mission Kurien invited me to his centre, where I met with 4000 dairy farmers. This was a man who operated on a scale that others could hardly dream of, but which was necessary if you wanted to fundamentally change Indian conditions.

So now we had six missions supported fully by the prime minister. As the missions got under way, all six mission directors—Jairam, myself and a couple of staff—started our crazy, hectic travels as a group. Jairam was my biggest asset. We went to a different state every week. The state’s chief minister would be waiting. We’d meet with him and the heads of his departments to go through the missions one by one: What was happening in this state on drinking water, literacy, immunization, telecom, oils and dairy? Then we’d hold a press conference. With the chief minister sitting next to me, I’d announce where we were and what we were going to do. Going public like this meant that everyone was aware of the projects we were undertaking and of our timelines for accomplishing them. This meant operating under scrutiny, with complete transparency and accountability. It meant that the state ministers were publicly associated with these projects and, along with us, would be seen as accountable.

This was a new thing for the local governments—somebody from the prime minister’s office coming in to review the situation and making press announcements. The media, of course, loved it and lapped it all up. And nobody could say no, because the prime minister was fully committed to the cause. All the chief ministers and other political bosses were very supportive of the Technology Missions and other initiatives of the Rajiv Gandhi government.

As the Technology Missions work advanced, the UN became aware of what we were doing. The concept of the missions seemed something that might be beneficial to development in other nations as well, and the UN convened a meeting on the subject in Poland. I travelled to Warsaw for this and gave a series of talks, emphasizing on technology as the entry point for widespread development. The upshot of this was a UN report recommending every developing country to consider implementing the Technology Mission concept.

However, not all of our Technology Missions work was successful. We made an important impact in our six established areas—water, immunization, oilseeds, literacy, telecommunications and dairy. But my attempts to expand the missions to include environment, housing, floods and droughts failed to get off the ground. Prime Minister Gandhi was in favour of the plans, but I found that political problems and conceptual differences among the relevant experts were too knotty to resolve easily. I was simply unable to negotiate the problems within a reasonable time frame. I didn’t give up on these, but I put off pursuing them until the point where we might be able to marshal more resources.

The Missions also generated substantial political and media controversy. Of the many projects we undertook, some simply did not work out. Critics would say that they succeeded only 60 or 70 per cent of the time—which they deemed a failure and the proof of a mistaken, poorly conceived diversion of government resources.

People take great pride in identifying problems. I always say that you do not need talent to identify problems in India. All you have to do is stand on a street corner and watch the scenes for ten minutes. You will perhaps be able to identify many of the challenges facing India merely in that space. At times, even the solutions are staring right at you, however, we lack men and women with the domain expertise, leadership, ethics and courage to address these challenges against a potentially hostile bureaucratic environment and multiple odds. People tend to shift the blame and believe that the problem lies somewhere or with somebody else, as opposed to looking within themselves to introspect and critique. At times, I found that what people think of as important is really not very important, and that what people think of as unimportant is extremely important.

During one of my trips as part of the Technology Missions, we went to a small village in Uttar Pradesh after visiting a local health facility, a school and a biogas plant. We were escorted to a big meeting organized by the head of the village, with almost 300 people in the audience. In his speech, the village leader started complaining that the village doesn’t have a teacher, the doctor doesn’t come regularly, electricity is not available, and on and on. When it was my turn to speak, he was basically expecting me to say that I would go back to Delhi and promptly solve all their problems. As opposed to this, I told them that these were their problems and that in a democracy one need to take charge themselves and begin to solve local problems with local resources. I told them to not await the central government’s help to solve every local problem. I expect my speech was not too well-received.

I continually tried hard to explain why I thought this kind of criticism was unjustified. My job, as I saw it, was not to ensure a 100 per cent success-rate. We were in the process of building a nation, not a company that needed to maximize its productivity and returns in order to survive and stay competitive. Consequently, I wasn’t overly concerned if some of our initiatives didn’t work out. I could take responsibility when that happened, but ensuring success was not my goal. I was, if anything, more interested in the process than the product. My goal was to set up processes that were more effective than those currently in practice (which so often moved at a glacial pace, or all too often, not at all).

I was more affected and startled by the criticism of some of my friends, Rajni Kothari, for example. Kothari was the founder of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the person I had consulted when I was first developing the idea for C-DOT. Kothari, a pre-eminent political theorist, was not happy with technologists who lacked what he thought of as cultural and philosophical depth. He also believed that working in partnership with the government was a waste of time that would, as he said in public, ‘tie you [Sam] in knots from which you will find it difficult to liberate yourself’. Working in this way would be, he thought, a ‘kiss of death’. It was far better, in his opinion, to work from the grass-roots up rather than from the top down.

I thought Kothari was simply mistaken. He and many other leading thinkers were, at heart, anti-government people, which is why they made their intellectual homes in the think tanks and institutes. In that regard I had separated myself from them philosophically. I felt with absolute certainty that partnering with the government was the onlyway to make any real impact on a meaningful scale in a nation the size of India.

I felt very strongly that I had found the right niche for myself. I had certain specific skills in technology, in designing systems, in certain forms of management. I was highly driven and wanted to get things done, and I had developed a thick skin and the ability to project confidence, which helped me bring people along with me on the journey. And through some luck, I had struck up a friendship with Rajiv Gandhi, which allowed me the backing and political will I needed. I also received a great deal of love, affection and support from the media and the public. People were very generous with their praise and appreciated my sincere efforts to help modernize India.

Doing all these things at once—travelling constantly around the country, meeting not just with India’s own top leaders but with international personalities as well—was a head rush. I was charged up—there were so many areas where I thought I could make a dent. I knew, too, that time was going to run out at some point, which injected extra urgency into our projects. I could push this button, push that one—and every push could affect a million people, 5 million people. What a romantic thing to do, what a fulfilling thing to do—to make a difference in the fields of education, health, telecom, water and immunization for so many. I didn’t know what the future might hold, but for the moment, at least, I had found the right outlet for whatever compulsions were driving me—my need to fix things, my intolerance for political and bureaucratic dysfunction, and my dreams for a more progressive, more humane India.