The Engineer as Milkman

The farmer and the cowman should be friends./Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends./One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends. … /The farmer is a good and thrifty citizen, no matter what the cowman says of things./You seldom see ’em drinkin’ in a bar room /Unless somebody else is buyin drinks.

Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1943


Early this morning (Sunday, September 9), an Indian milkman-engineer passed away in Anand, Gujarat. He was a friend of dairy farmers, but he came out of the brand new profession of the mid-twentieth century: he was trained as a nuclear engineer at the University of Michigan. If India had a Rodgers-Hammerstein duo, they would be working on a sequel, The Engineer and the Farmer should be Friends.

Through the early twentieth century, the farmer and the market-production and distribution systems of settled agriculture slowly but surely edged out the “cowboy’s” way of life in the American West. Popular US culture celebrates the cowboy way of life (often in jingoistic and masculinist ways; think about the Marlboro Man, or Frederic Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis). But the nostalgia for the Marlboro Man, or for Clint Eastwood’s frontier, is the province of backward-thinkers, we all acknowledge now. The farmer was the harbinger of the future. While I am happy to abandon the machismo that Hollywood stars like John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Clint Eastwood memorialized, I find familiar, and worth analyzing, the implicit time-line of progress that historians and economic theorists usually apply to this story. We usually assume that just as hunter-gatherers were made obsolete withhuman progress, in the same way, nomadic pastoralism gave way to settled agriculture in a temporality that is natural inevitable, and ultimately defines modern sciemtific and technological modernity. In an interesting way, Oklahoma! The musical (and the 1931 book on which it was based) appeal to us to suspend our judgemental temporal assumptions for a moment. Friendship, they suggest, should transcend these historicist prejudices.

In America By Design, David Noble chronicles the next big historical shift in American modernity: the rise of the engineer. If the wheat and corn of the Midwestern farmers had come to supplant the bison and the cowboys, the wheat farmers too were doomed to be relegated to history’s past, after the dramatic success of American nuclear scientists and the rise of social engineering after World War II.


Verghese Kurien was 90 when he passed away. The past century, which was his time, holds more stories than can easily be told, today, of modernity’s heroes. Popularly known as the “Father of the White Revolution,” (honored with national and global accolades such as the Padma Vibhushan and the World Food Prize; vilified by science critics such as Claude Alvares ), he personally preferred the moniker “India’s milkman.” He became famous for developing, expanding, and making profitable the world’s largest farmer-run dairy co-operative. Gujarati farmers, exploited by a monopolistic private dairy corporation, found help from Gujarati national leaders such as Vallabhbhai Patel and Morarji Desai to form farmer-owned and run village level co-operatives that could market milk directly to distant consumers. Many aspects of the story are well chronicled in essays, books and films.


In the media furore over his death today (as well as his 90th birthday), and in many recent award-ceremonies, we hear about individual sacrifice and dedication to one’s country, which is all part of the true story. But we rarely see journalists celebrating the ways in which the context for such success emerged. Three oddities seem worth noting, in these popular narratives: the role of the State, the role of regional kinship networks, and the roles of corporations and globalization.

The State, Society, & Agriculture

It’s not fashionable these days to champion State subsidies of agriculture. Yet part of the AMUL story is the way in which the Indian State intervened in, and subsidized, local development initiatives. Without State support, there would’ve been no heroic individuals. While we need to celebrate individuals who achieved great thigs, we also need to acknowledge the ways in which, without continued State subsidies for important things like agrarian production, we may not be able to produce as many heroes in the future.


It’s not common to hear complicated stories about caste. Caste-networks are everywhere, silently shaping Indian business and agriculture, but we rarely hear about how caste mobilizes everyday political networks. Because of the violent, inexcusable ways in which caste has shaped village and urban life throughout India’s modern history, it’s hard to talk about the complicated ways in which caste works every day, rather than only in putatively-aberrant, spectacular spurts (which is how the media coverage commonly reports it). In order to confront the roots of caste violence we will need to study the most complicated and mundane workings of caste. As Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have done for middle-eastern Islam (an even more politically-fraught topic, at the moment, than Indian caste), South Asian academics need to complicate the media stories about modern Indian identities and the narratives of religion and kinship. Caste-based farmer’s activism is hard to narrativise for a global audience; it certainly doesn’t lend itself to easy celebratory narratives by leftist modernisers or religious nationalists. AMUL’s pre-history involves caste and kinship networks linking local farmer-activists to national leaders, creating a web of Gujarat- and Delhi-based connections that later grew to an international phenomenon. Caste-networks are historically sedimented; yet they are full of contradictions: Gujarati activist Tribhovandas Patel appointed, and mentored, a foreign-educated, beef-eating, hard-drinking, Christian-born atheist to lead this fragile farmer’s cooperative.


How can we fight caste-prejudice today when we tell cleaned-up narratives that exclude these stories? When hagiographers and journalists fail to mention Kurien’s love of beef and cognac, they are impicitly deleting what seem to be unworthy traits in a patriotic hero. We need to tell more contaminated, messy stories about heroes and nationalists, about caste and social mixtures.


Recent studies of caste in corporate India have shown that corporate boards are closely-guarded caste-based clubs, and even publicly advertised jobs in the IT field are doled out based on toxic upper-caste-prejudice. Yet media critiques of caste call only for India to move into the future based on a cleansing of past superstitions by Indian citizens; as if the historical constructions of self could be dissolved by the cleaning power of science, technology, and rationality overnight. These constructions render caste, village, and kinship ties to the realm of the past, while technology becomes the beacon of the future (just as the cowboy became the past when the farmer emerged as Oklahoma’s future in the early 20th century). Modernity’s simple temporalities make for simpler journalistic narratives, but hinder the development of the kind of revolutionary critique of caste-dynamics that we really need.


We rarely hear a celebration about how a corporate monopoly (Polson dairies, in this case) was defeated by a coalition of activists, nationalists, and dairy farmers. In the AMUL story, the corporate entity was clearly the bad guy in the drama, denying village farmers a fair price and gouging customers in the cities. And globalization-from-below actually becomes a good thing in this story, as the little farmers’ cooperative grows to become a world-wide marketer of Indian dairy products. Yet again, this inverts the media stories we hear today, in which the corporate leaders are always good guys, becoming our national leaders, our teachers, our role models. Globalisation is rarely seen as a bottom-up, grassroots possibility for farmers; instead, it must be, we are told, corporate-led. Training schools will help you choose the right business suit and practice the right non-sweaty handshake to make you truly global.


 The End of an Era? Cows to Computers
I began with the farmer and the cow-man because I think a similar transition is in progress.

As much as the media celebrates India’s milkman today, and tells the heart-warming story about how he gave up a corporate job to dedicate himself to Guajarat’s villages, today marks the end of the era that V. Kurien lived in. The age of the farmer has already given way to the age of the digital entrepreneur. And Kurien is celebrated much like the Marlboro man: it gives us a nostalgic pause so that we can get on with the business of being truly modern, which means embracing the occupational transitions that define modernity’s timeline. As the nomadic pastoralist gave way to the farmer, so must the rural farmer give way to the urban computational expert, popular wisdom seems to say.


When, in 1947, India became independent, its archetypal citizen-subject was the farmer; 60 years later it was the software engineer. Now central, rather than marginal, in global economic networks, India’s popular image at the beginning of the twenty- first century is of a postcolonial nation that has successfully used technology to leapfrog over its historical legacy of underdevelopment. This shift in ideal-citizen archetypes, from farmer to digital entrepreneur, is, as we speak, being written into India’s future, largely by media narratives of our contemporary heroes. As the legend of V. Kurien passes away, the legends of Infosys’s outsourcing heroes and the Aakash tablet will rise in its place. The changes that India experienced in the late twentieth century have been chronicled in terms of political, economic, and cultural shifts; for example, through chronicles of such phenomena as the persistence of the Congress dynasty and the electoral power shifts between liberal and Hindu nationalist parties; the economics of centralized planning and the emergence of neo-liberalism after the IMF-led “opening up” of the 1990s; and the importance of cultural phenomena such as cinema, television, advertising, and tourism to the forging of citizenship. But technology emerges in unexpected ways as a key shaper of modern citizenship around the turn of the century. Although this emergence has been the subject of much contemporary analysis and commentary, we still lack long historical analyses that can explain the deep and fundamental changes in the sphere of citizenship and politics that seemed to emerge entangled with the question of computational technology in the late 20th century. Especially provocative would be a revisiting of economist Kalyan Sanyal’s argument that post-colonial capitalism is a story not of transition, but of the continual reproduction of the conditions of uneven development.

Kalyan Sanyal died suddenly this year, at the age of 60. Not yet as famous as he should have been, he died only 5 years after the publication of his major book-length contribution to Indian political economy, and many of his most important contributions were perhaps yet to come. It would be fitting if, in 2012, we remembered simultaneously those who have been recognised as heroes of our country, who truly do embody the finest in individual achievement that India has achieved since Independence; as well as those unsung heroes whose words can still teach us to question the stories of modernity that will shape our futures.



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4 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    Goodbye, Molly Kurien. Your legacies go on.

  2. Zinc says:

    Less than 3 months later, his wife, Molly Kurien passed away today. She will be cremated on Saturday (a very unusual choice for Christians of this generation; it underscores how, in conventionally surprising ways, both the Kuriens had become part of mainstream Hindu-Gujarati culture).
    For this generation like so many others, the story of successful men is always also a story of supportive wives. Of course, the daily labor she put into his success will not be eulogized in the same way that Dr. Kurien’s career was. It’s worth remembering on this site, though, that all success today is still bound up with the joint labor and shared play of kin of all kinds.

  3. Zinc says:

    Just found the first obit that mentions beef and alcohol ! Symptomatically it wasn’t published in India.

  4. Nishant says:

    Dear Zinc,

    This was a treat to read! Not only is it a fascinating reading of the AMUL co-operative movement and its politics in Gujarat, but it is also, for me, very thought provoking in its thesis on modernity. Modernity, as we already know, has been a hugely elusive concept in the country’s history. At different times, it is associated with different movements and moments, wedded to nation-building exercises and the role that science and technology had to play in the process.

    From Gandhi’s Nationalism and Nehru’s temples of science to the Sarabhai dream of a Nuclear India and the later Murdochisation of the telecom industry, there has been one way of defining this (technology mediated) modernity, and that has always been in its relationship to the pastoral. The material pastoral peasant, who is far removed from the realms of the philosophical, the rational and the progressive modernist, has always been the central figure of modernity (which, for me, is ironic because one would have assumed that the central figure of modernity would be the modernist), in need of a cure that will evolve him (and generally him) into embodying the modern national subject. This split has always been present, no matter what the imagination, technologies and bodies of modernity in the country.

    Your essay just made me dwell on this split a little more because there are three things that you are pointing at which are making the grey cells go in a tizzy.

    The first is the emergence of the IT engineer as the new central subject of modernity- the digital entrepreneur who shall make India shine. I am very curious about who this digital entrepreneur is defined against. Who is the antithesis to his (and again his) modernity that can be imagined as the pastoral and in need of technology aided uplift? I cannot think of an immediate answer, and perhaps that is why I am wondering if there is more to the blurring of boundaries than merely the Swades moment of continuity where the ploughsman who was supposed to till and harvest the nation hands the baton to the code warrior who is expected to wire and network the country. Is it possible, to read in this absence of an antithesis, something new that is happening to the discourse on Indian modernity? I don’t yet have my finger on the pulse, but I imagine, that the quest for the antithesis to the Indian IT engineer might be worth pushing towards.

    This ties in with the second thing that I am thinking about – the figure of the Bangalore Techie. Unlike the milkman in Kurien’s battles, there is an incredible denuding of the Bangalore Techie, of all modernist affiliations with structures of caste, language, region, etc. Which is not to say that these do not feature in the material practices of production and hiring, lifestyles and dislocations, but that they are completely made transparent (as in things we are supposed to see through) in the new vocabulary of benign politics that emerges in these spaces. When I was working with Yahoo, I noticed over a period of 2 years that all things being equal (skill, experience, education etc.) there were some techies who were always ‘back-desk’ and some who were quickly being escalated to managerial positions requiring customer interaction and supervision of other team members, often across two continents.

    There was a clear pattern emerging as to how the dark skinned, religiously or caste-marked or religiously identified men, and non-normative women were always on the downward curve of this promotion trajectory. This was all done unconsciously, and in the language of ‘presentability’ and ‘people skills’ but deep in there was the replaying of older inequities and social injustices that were merely resurfacing themselves in these intricate languages of neo-liberal meritocracy and modernity, thus simultaneously downplaying and emphasising the larger battles with modernity. I am just curious how the Bangalore Techie, who is now no longer at the fringes but at the centre of this modernity discourse, can be read as embodying these politics which have been a part of our nation building exercise but are quickly disappearing under the pressures of the rhetoric of economic globalisation.

    The last thing that the essay inspired in me is to look at the role of technology differently. Is it possible to imagine, in this lack of an antithesis to the IT engineer, and the historical thin identity of the Bangalore Techie, a different role that technology has to offer? If one of the aesthetics of digital technologies is simulation, are we looking at simulated modernities as well? For instance, instead of imagining technology as the site where these negotiations happen, I want to see what happens, if technology is the apparatus through which different aspects of the modernist consolidated identity now get relegated to different domains. So, technologies allow for a performative split, where the neo-liberal quantifiers and markers of identity get assimilated in the public domain – in the body of the public domain – whereas the older markers get dismissed to the domain of the personal and the affective, thus paving the way for a development based discourse that moves on measures of efficiency, productivity, mobilisation and mobility, unable to (and unwilling to) account for the personal, the aspirational, the affective and the emotional circuits of discrimination, injustice and inequity that these new struggles with modernity override.

    Sorry, this is so long, but I was inspired by the essay and wanted to pen down the thoughts as they came to me. I know I am not as clear as I should be in these ideas yet – these are thoughts in progress – but these are some of the things I am thinking through right now and the essay helped me consolidate these thoughts and think of the figure of the engineer as a milk-man, as an interesting slip where the otherwise separated models become one, thus offering us perhaps a new ontology of the modernist and its relationship with the digital technologies.