Utterly unbutterly

Politicians dip their greasy palms into a successful cooperative venture to corner the cream

By Rajat Banerji
Published: Friday 15 March 1996

-- THE fact that laws which govern the cooperative sector have always left successful cooperatives tantalisingly within the reach of political leadership has once again come to the fore in Gujarat. The almost idyllic calm at Amul, the most successful of such ventures in the country, was shattered when it was rudely shocked by certain steps taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party (Bip) -ruled state government.

The largest dairy cooperative in the country was jolted when the state government invoked two clauses, sections 80(1) and 80(11), of the Gujarat Cooperative Societies Act, 1961. This enabled the government to foist three of its nominees and a bank representative on to the 13-member board of directors during the board elections last October.

The board, 91though apolitical, has always enjoyed the patron 'age of the majority, the Congress-backed nominees. In the October elections, while Congress won eight of the 13 seats, BJP-supported nominees won four, the last elected member being an,independent. By introducing four new nominees later (through invoking the two clauses) and by reportedly 'gaining the confidence' of the independent, the BJP-supported group stood at nine, thereby attaining majority.

Before elections for the chairperson of the Board (scheduled for November 22) could be held, one of the Congress- backed elect6d members, Ramsinh Parmar, filed a writ and obtained a stay order from the Gujarat High Court. The writ prayed that as the Gujarat government was not a financial guarantor to any loans taken by the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers Union Ltd (the parent body of Amul), it could not impose itself upon the cooperative.

The Union had borrowed over Rs 200 crore from funds of the Operatioh Flood scheme, to finance a new dairy and cheese processing plant. In April '95, they had shifted the guarantee of Rs 84 crore to the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and its marketing wing, the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation. This move meant that the Gujarat government's last claims to beinga financial guarantor were surely obliterated.

Following the writ, the deputy collector of Anand suspended the elections for the chairperson on the ground that the stay. on the appointment of the government representatives took away their right to vote in the elections.

This 'interference' from the local administration, which was seen by many as the orders of the state government, was possible via an amendment to the Act in 1982. This provided local collectors with the power to hold elections for the cooperatives.

On his part, the father of the country's white revolution and NDDB chairperson, Vefghese Kurien, said that political workers had never contested for seats on the boards Tata Iron & Steel Company, Reliance Industries or the Godrej group. So, how could they now contest for seats on the board of a cooperative, he asked, commenting upon the BJP's attempts to 'hijack' the Amul board.

His opinion, that political parties did not have a platform on how best to run a cooperative, which was a business enterprise, and his claims that it was this kind of interference that had cost the nation a generation of agriculture sector-driven economic growth, may have hit the nail bang on the head.

In the cooperative movement, Amul certainly shines as the perfect example of how people's collective power can succeed, regardless of the odds. And with professionals managing its affairs, it is today not only a market leader that has produced high quality milk, butter, cheese, cheese spreads, chocolates, and baby-food, to name a few products in the country-wide market, but a brand name that is clearly well prepared to deal with the coming competitiveness of the liberalised open economy.

Thus, whether the aim of political parties is to gain control of, and thereby tap the 1.0 1 crore votes of the members of Amul's 50,000 associated cooperative societies for the general elections, or to destabilise a market leader, thereby serving some unknown vested business interest, this move quite rightly received the nasty reaction it merited.

The ensuing hue and cry made the Bip highcommand sit up and issue directives to the state government to pour oil over troubled waters. While the chief minister, Suresh Mehta, has ensnared himself in an utterly messy situation, Anand and its sylvan surroundings grimly await the outcome of the court case.

But there is clearly the need for having a Central legislation that does not lend itself to the kind of diabolic manipulation through state proviso that has been seen in this instance, If the cooperative sector too is left open to political intrigues, the day may not be far off when multinational purses will buy their way to its boards through lavish patronage, which, after the hawala scandal, seems to be all that matters. to our leaders. So much for swadeshi!

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