The premature exit of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) chairman, T. Nanda Kumar, apparently due to tensions with the powers that be in Krishi Bhawan, seems yet another instance of the undermining of the autonomy of institutions of national importance. Nanda Kumar may have been appointed by the previous UPA regime, but his choice was the result of a formal search-cum-selection process in which professional qualifications clearly overrode any other considerations. Moreover, the NDDB isn’t any ordinary department. As a statutory corporation set up through an act of Parliament, it was intended to be independent of the agriculture ministry. The resultant functional autonomy — which should, in fact, apply to all public sector undertakings — played a part in the success of the Operation Flood programme that the NDDB spearheaded during 1970-95. India’s milk production trebled to around 66 million tonnes over this period, which owed itself largely to the integrated cooperative procurement, processing and marketing network created under Operation Flood. It is doubtful whether this remarkable transformation — from large-scale importer of milk powder and butter oil to self-sufficiency in domestic production — would have happened had the job been entrusted to bureaucrats in Krishi Bhawan.
If reports of Nanda Kumar’s departure being forced by ministerial/bureaucratic interference are true — his reference to “serious conflict with the external environment” does suggest that — it sends out unhappy signals about the way public institutions are managed. Are people appointed to head them dispensable merely because they aren’t seen to be close enough to the new dispensation? There may be a similarity here with the resignation of RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan, which was again more forced than voluntary. If political acceptability rather than professional competence is what matters, it has an obvious bearing on the integrity of institutions. The Narendra Modi government would do well to quickly repair the damage, by appointing a new NDDB chairman with the required credentials relevant to India’s dairy industry.
Equally, there is a need to rethink the NDDB’s role in the post-Operation Flood era. Since 1995, the country’s milk output has doubled and this has been powered more by private, not cooperative dairies. An estimated 55 per cent of organised milk procurement is today undertaken by private dairies, which was not the case two decades ago. This new reality is not recognised, leave alone incorporated into the official policymaking framework that is still cooperative-focused. There’s no reason to exclude private dairies from the NDDB’s National Dairy Plan, at least with regard to supporting backend extension and development activities by them — for instance, artificial insemination and genetic upgradation of animals, improved fodder and feeding practices or veterinary care and nutrition. If the ultimate aim is “national dairy development”, it matters little whether this is being done through cooperative or private initiative.