Farming co-ops poised to come of age in the '80s

Jayanti doesn't live in his father's house anymore. That's unusual in India, where the joint family as an institution goes back more than 4,000 years.

Nor does the young farmer really care whether he works side by side with Harijans (the so-called ''untouchables'').

And as for selling his crops to a trader, as all his forefathers did before him, well, that's over and done with now.

Traditions have fallen like acorns in Palana, Jayanti's village. Slow wealth shook up this brown and dusty community of 5,000 Indians, about 300 miles north of Bombay. Their daily work revolves around a relatively new institution in India: the cooperative.

Agricultural cooperatives have had a rough hoe in this land of highly individualistic people. With little history of irrigation systems, Indians by nature find it difficult to work together for long periods of time.

But if all goes well, the cooperative movement, which really began 35 years ago and has expanded slowly, is ready to escalate its effects on Indian agriculture in the 1980s.

The effect on Jayanti's village is typical. The cooperative started in 1957, using a system begun 10 years years earlier in the nearby village of Anand. Now known as the Anand model, the cooperative cuts out the sometimes-corrupt middleman in diary production, letting farmers market their milk directly to consumers, process it in their own dairy plants, and support one another in the care of their cows and buffaloes.

Sounds simple. In Palana, it worked. With 653 members, the dairy co-op brings high milk prices. Last year, the co-op earned a net profit of $3,900. Past profits helped build a school and library, a sewing machine was bought for the ladies' club, and relief was given flood victims.

Twice a day, members of all castes, mainly women, line up to deliver milk. Members try not to let ethnic differences divide the co-op. As shareholders, they choose co-op leaders with care, judging on performance and not social standing. With more money, people like Jayanti find they are less dependent on their families, and buy a piece of land of their own. Ironically, the village learned of hygiene and family planning by first being exposed to the proper feeding and breeding of their livestock. The whole village shapes up as the economic discipline of the co-op is applied to other activities, such as making sure streetlights work.

The Anand model has grown to include 1.8 million farming families, a small amount amid India's 700 million population, largely rural. It is most successful around Anand in the state of Gujarat, perhaps because this is the local of the spiritual ashram of Mohandas Gandhi, leader of India's independence, who saw cooperation as a means of ''strengthening human values and democracy.''

The beauty of cooperatives for India is that they are nonpaternalistic and self-financing, and require little government involvement. They also bring a new democratic force to the villages. Co-op leaders are elected once a year, while local politicians stand before voters every five years.

The Anand model has been nurtured from the start by Dr. Verghese Kurien, a former engineer, who now rules over a virtual empire of co-operatives (''I am hired by the farmers''). It includes 18 dairy processing plants around India, with 13 more on the way. The dairy business was easy to ''co-op,'' he says, because it was relatively unorganized and because of the importance of milk in Indian folklore.

In Hindu legends, the most popular god is Lord Krishna, who is usually depicted in paintings with dairy cows about him and surrounded by six milk maidens, or Gopis.

Another Hindu tradition is the caste of traders, or Vaisyas. They played an important role in historic times, says Dr. Kurien, but since independence in 1947, more villagers have money and the traders have become exploitative, especially in the milk trade.

''Every farmer in India has either a cow or buffalo,'' he says. ''It is a major part of his wealth. If we can make the cows more productive, the farmer gets more money. And since women are usually the ones who tend the cows, they earn the income,'' he states. The average cow is as good for income as 1.5 acres of land, he adds.

The system forces Brahmans and untouchables to work together, to drink milk out of the same container. ''The co-ops make a mockery of the caste system,'' Dr. Kurien finds. A few co-ops are even run by Harijan women. ''We are dragging our farmers into the 21st century.''

Under government support, a second wave of dairy cooperatives is being formed to reach a hoped-for 10 million farmers by 1988. The operation is run by the National Dairy Development Board, with Dr. Kurien as chairman. The dairy industry is only 7 percent of India's agricultural production, and even of that, not all farmers would be reached under this second drive, known as Operation Flood II. But Dr. Kurien believes that prices for all dairy farmers can be stabilized if 15 percent of the production is done through co-ops. The much-touted movement is known as ''the white revolution.''

The second revolution for Mr. Kurien lies in oilseeds, which include such delectables as groundnuts (peanuts), rapeseed, mustard, soybeans, safflower, linseed, and castor. After food grains, they are India's second most important sources of protein. And India cultivates one-third of the world's land area devoted to oilseeds.

The oilseed market is ruled by oil kings, or telia rajas, as they are known. A decade ago, India was largely self-sufficient in these edible oils. Today, productivity has declined in most areas, and India must import vast quantities of the food, dangerously threatening its foreign exchange accounts.

''It's taken 30 years to eliminate the bloodsuckers (middlemen) from dairy. Now it's oilseeds,'' says Dr. Kurien, with more than a little passion. Cotton and jute are next.

In 1979, the ''oilseeds growers' co-operative project'' was born, aiming to involve 2 million farmers in 8,000 villages in a vertically integrated cooperative movement from field to oilseed plant to consumer. To ''prime the pump,'' or open markets for itself and earn initial capital, the Cooperative League of the United States and the Cooperative Union of Canada are donating $ 250 million of oilseeds over five years. The world bank is providing $300 million.

In three years, only 150 villages have formed oilseed co-ops. But farmers in those co-ops have more than tripled their yields (mainly in groundnuts) and received double their normal prices.

Both in Operation Flood II and the Oil Seed Project, progress has been slow. In New Delhi, government pricing of milk in favor of urban consumers has caused many dairy co-ops to flounder. And in oilseeds, the oil kings reacted with violence to co-ops ruining many of their traditional markets.

Fires were set in co-op buildings, and the director of the dairy board was thrown out of a train and injured. In addition, quarrels developed among government officials, Dr. Kurien, and the US Agency for International Development, which was channeling the donated oilseeds.

Also, providing able managers for large co-ops required a new ''institute of rural management.'' The first class, 47 students, graduated just this year.

Sometimes, Dr. Kurien says, ''I wish we had a cooperative revolution, rather than evolution. But that can't be done and keep democracy in India.''

Struggles or not, quick results or not, the co-ops grow in number.

In fact, a few months ago Jayanti joined a co-op for growing peanuts, another oilseed. His first harvest, over 400 pounds, came into the village for weighing. All the farmers gathered around. Why did he join? Jayanti is asked. ''I knew I would get a better price.''

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