India drinks a lot of milk. I don’t know why. And I say this as we humans seem to be the only animals that continue drinking milk well beyond the early stage of infancy and need. We are quick to substitute mother’s milk with cow or buffalo milk and stick to the taste all life long.
Milk is, therefore, a big business in India. At last estimation, the category is a $68 billion industry with very focused domestic consumption and growing at a CAGR of 4.8 percent (2023-27). We drink milk as pure as it comes. It is not just a topping in our cup of coffee or tea. Milk means a lot more to the average Indian than it does to anyone else anywhere. It’s passion in a glass.
India produces nearly a quarter of the global milk production, and the industry employs as many as 82 million dairy farmers directly. The dairy farmer, in turn, is a very involved entity. He is completely tied to his cows and buffaloes, and his life runs on two cycles of milking—morning and evening. He has no holidays. For him, this is a livelihood industry. Therefore, milk is an industry that takes a lot from the dairy farmer and possibly gives back a little less than what he deserves. And there is angst on this count.
Within the industry of milk is the dairy cooperative. An internecine system of collection, checking, processing, and delivery of that same milk at the doorstep of millions of homes has been put into place over the years. Dr Verghese Kurien is credited as the father of the dairy revolution in India, an industry that supports the country guzzling 85 million metric tonnes of milk per annum.
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Milk is, therefore, something none of us can do without. Last week, a fracas broke out in Karnataka, where opposition political parties involved in a very frenetic election routine, stoked the issue of a tussle between brands Amul and Nandini. While the former is a ₹72,000 crore brand offering of the GCMMF (Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation), the latter is a ₹25,000 crore offering of the KMF (Karnataka Milk Federation). Both are robust cooperative movements with lakhs of dairy farmers under their ambit.
The tussle broke out with an innocuous announcement by Amul that it was commencing sales of its milk and butter through the ecommerce and quick commerce channels for Bengaluru city. The city currently has as many as 17 brands (most from the private sector dairies) selling their produce, but the brand Amul seemed to have riled many around.
The key issues raised in this fight were interestingly not put forth by the cooperatives but by political parties wanting to score a brownie point in the run-up to the elections in the State. Both GCMMF and KML sat in as outsiders, as packets of Amul products were squashed on the streets and hotels and restaurants vowed to boycott the brand. The optics were terrible.
The entire issue turned jingoistic. The key point made in this debate was that Amul was trying to subsume the brand Nandini—a brand assiduously built by the local dairy farmers of Karnataka. The battle is unique because this is between two cooperatives, with none of them actually involved in it as active fighters. It was a battle of perception. Perception spurred ahead by the political class, wanting to make a dent in the vote bank of the ruling party in both the State and Centre. If you ask me what the key idea behind it all was, it is a simple one. Milk is a sensitive arena. It is handled by millions of small local dairy farmers and a local livelihood industry. If you procure milk from Karnataka and sell it back in Karnataka, all is well. If you procure milk from Gujarat and sell it in Karnataka, that is an “incursion”. An incursion that can start small, but can become an industry killer in the local hinterland in the long run.
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Two sets of views dominated this case of current milk geopolitics. One said that we are one nation. In the least, products, services, and brands must crisscross the nation without comment and controversy. And the other said that the very ethos of a cooperative movement is local. One cooperative must not transgress the territory of another. Keep to your turf, dear Amul. The over-heated election environment added grist to it all and created a further furore.
Now which side of the argument would you sit on? One nation, one tax? One nation, one milk? For the first time brand Amul, which started small, representing the ethos of the small dairy farmer, was at the centre of a debate where it was seen to be a big brand wanting to trespass the terrain of the smaller brand, in this case, Nandini. This was being made out to be a David versus Goliath battle.
Is this fair? Are we not one nation? Must milk not flow all across seamlessness without let or hindrance? Like all commodities and products and brands must?
Fair or not, we have seen this happen with water in the past. The battles between States, basis the riverine water-sharing, is a classic case. The ages-old Cauvery agitation between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, for example.
Milk is the new water. What’s next then?
It has happened with water. It is now happening with milk. What will it happen with next? Will States get jingoistic in their consumption patterns? Even as I write this, there is trouble brewing in Guntur. With the amendment of the APMC Act, there is a seamless movement of the commodity. A Gujarat chilli variety called “Pushpa” (also known as Lali) is creating tumult in the traditional and local Bydagi market. Is there a chilli war brewing between States now?
I believe a “local for local” movement is bound to grow in the country, as farmers, for a start, get very possessive of their heritage markets and their traditional route to market. A trend to look out for.
The writer is a business and brand-strategy expert, and founder of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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