For Amul, the “lockdown” isn’t completely new. We have seen them in the past, whenever there were riots, curfews or natural calamities — from floods to the Gujarat earthquake in 2001. I remember driving my old Fiat car through Kalupur, Khadia, Astodia, Jamalpur and Dariapur in Ahmedabad during 1990. These were the most disturbed areas that had extended curfews after the riots had taken place.
In all these disturbances, we had standard procedures and steps that were to be followed: Keep the milk procurement from our village cooperative societies and processing at the district union dairies going. The critical thing was to ensure that the logistics were in place and that all the approvals from authorities — especially for the movement of tankers, milk vans and our employees — were taken immediately. Milk, being an essential commodity, plus the brand itself, meant that we never really faced issues. Our vehicles were never stopped; my own car, plastered with an Amul milk poster on the windscreen, could easily ride through the curfew areas in east Ahmedabad.
This time, it hasn’t been much different. If anything, rather than securing permissions, I received calls the very day the lockdown came into effect from the Union home ministry officials, the animal husbandry and dairy minister and the principal chief secretary to the Gujarat Chief Minister, and the chief secretaries of Gujarat and a few other states, asking what permits or other help was required to ensure uninterrupted supply of milk.
We have been better placed in other aspects too. In the old days, there were no mobiles or laptops that made working from remote places possible. While landlines were available at our offices, plants and residences, collecting money from dealers, invoicing and making payments to farmers or transporters all had to be done physically.
The one big challenge for us in this lockdown, however, has been the need to maintain social distancing. Even before the lockdown, which we knew was coming, we had planned to have two separate teams to take turns at our headquarters. Only one team would come to office on one day, while those in the other team worked from home. Unlike in the previous “lockdowns” where the idea was to get as many people to physically come to office, this time we had to keep them to the minimum without any disruption in operations.
Equally, if not more, challenging was to enforce social distancing among the 30 lakh-odd farmers pouring milk at our 18,500 village societies. We distributed banners on dos and don’ts to each of these societies with farmers compulsorily having to keep a minimum two-metre distance while standing in line and washing their hands properly with soap prior to entering the collection centre building. The tankers and vans carrying the milk were also to be disinfected before entering the dairy plant.
Our member unions collect roughly 260 lakh litres per day (LLPD) of milk, of which 210 is from Gujarat, while the remaining is mainly from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Like in previous calamities, there has been no fall in our procurement this time as well. Out of the 260 LLPD, we normally sell around 150 as fresh pouched milk, chhaachh and curd. The balance is converted into skimmed milk powder, dairy whitener, baby food, butter, ghee and cheese. You cannot stop cows and buffaloes from producing milk. Having sufficient drying and powder manufacturing capacity gives us the flexibility to manage the seasonal milk surpluses or deficits in the running pipeline.
In the first three days of the lockdown (March 24-27), our liquid milk and fresh product sales were actually 15 per cent higher than the normal of 150 LLPD. The reason for it was panic buying by households. But in the last couple of days, they have fallen to 25 per cent below the average, as households no longer feel the need to stock up. There can be no better indicator than this of our farmers delivering even in a national calamity of this scale. In situations like these, you need everyone from policymakers, district administrations and local police, to farmers, procurement staff, employees, transporters, C&F agents and distributors to work in close coordination.
There could be problems in the coming days, though, not for consumers as much as for producers. The closure of hotels, restaurants, caterers and even tea shops during the lockdown is already affecting our milk sales. The exodus of migrant labourers, whether from Delhi, Ahmedabad or Surat, back to their villages, will also have an impact on demand.
Further, many private dairies engaged in the production of commodities (milk powder and fat) for institutional and business-to-business markets have stopped procurement. The farmers, who were supplying to dairies which have slashed prices or have declared “milk holidays”, are now starting to supply to cooperatives. The disposal of surplus milk is going to be a serious problem in the coming days and the government should lose no time in paying attention to it as well.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 31, 2020 under the title ‘The milk must flow’. The writer is managing director of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd