23 Aug 2019 19:43 IST

IRMA’s unwavering focus on farmer empowerment

Carrying forward Dr V Kurien’s legacy, the rural management institute will turn 40 this year

After a tiring, two-hour drive from Ahmedabad airport, it's bliss to enter the sprawling, 60-acre campus of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). Set in sylvan surroundings, its long series of slate grey buildings offset by the lush foliage and dense tree cover, IRMA is a pioneering academic institution in rural management education and research.

For those staying on campus, as this writer did, an unusual feature is the soothing carillon chimes, which ring out across the silence every hour, starting at six in the morning till midnight. A pandemonium of parrots decides to chirp along. The musical notes can be heard over a kilometre away, and the harmonious arrangement is followed by the tolling of a bell indicating the time. Faculty members say they hardly look at their watches to check the time nowadays. In sync with IRMA’s philosophy of serving the most neglected but vital sector of the economy, the pealing bells are meant to ‘project hope, joy, inspiration, motivation and peace to communities worldwide’.



The walls at IRMA are adorned with pictures of Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, APJ Abdul Kalam and many such stalwarts who have visited the institute. But the picture that stands out is that of a man in a scarlet shirt and kind eyes — many call him the Milkman of India, some tag him the Father of the White Revolution, and people who know him a little more call him the Architect of Operation Flood. This is Dr Verghese Kurien, the founder of IRMA.

The inception

Explaining the story of the institute’s founding roots, Hitesh V Bhatt, Director, IRMA, says that in 1978-79, there were many dairy cooperatives in the country but not many people to man them. At that time, graduates from the prestigious business schools would join banks, multinational companies or consumer goods companies — and most of them would go abroad.

“Dr Kurien was on the board of governors of IIM Ahmedabad. He said at a meeting that students should serve the nation for at least three years before leaving the country,” Bhatt narrates.

Bhatt specifically asks everyone to read pages 210-214 of I Too Had A Dream, Dr Kurien’s biography, where the story is told that during the meeting, one of the board members who was a top industrialist in Ahmedabad, took the cigar out of his mouth and said, “So Dr Kurien, you want our graduates to go and milk cows.” To which Dr Kurien replied, “No, you continue to teach them how to suck on cigars.” Dr Kurien resigned from the board.

Ravi Matthai, then Director of IIM-A, suggested that Dr Kurien start his own institution, and that’s how, on December 14, 1979, IRMA took shape. “We will celebrate 40 years this year,” Bhatt says.

Need for rural managers

Dr RS Sodhi, Managing Director, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd, says, “The rural population mainly deals with food. India is home to 1.35 billion people and is projected to overtake China’s population by 2023-24. More people means the demand for food will increase, leading to higher consumption. As food is going to be huge business, it’s a big opportunity for Indian farmers and, simultaneously, the demand for rural managers is bound to increase.”

Not many know that Sodhi was part of the first batch of IRMA. “Voh bhi kya din the (those were the days),” he recalls to visiting journalists, while sipping hot coffee.

The institute offers a Post-graduate Diploma in Rural Management and an Executive Post-graduate Diploma in Management (Rural). The highlight of the courses is an eight-week long village fieldwork segment which exposes and sensitises students to the realities of rural life. Students are divided in small groups and sent to villages across the country. The aim is to familiarise them with the problems rural professionals face and how to deal with them creatively and tactfully. This helps students develop the skill-sets needed to become effective rural managers.



Rachna Sharma, an alumna of the institute, says, “The village fieldwork segment just after the first term was a life-changing experience. This is what makes IRMA different from other management colleges. Even after so many years, the memory is still fresh and I clearly remember where I went and what I did. It made me realise how privileged I am.”

Against the odds

Dr Kurien’s biography mentions that there were attempts by vested interests to take over control of IRMA and convert it into a profit-making institute, like most other management colleges in the country. But Dr Kurien’s vision was clear — “produce managers for India’s under-managed rural organisations which believe in people-centred, equitable and sustainable development.” Despite facing insurmountable challenges, he stood undeterred and triumphed.

“As I write the last few lines of my memoirs, my faith in the farmers of our country remains unshaken. The journey I began in Anand in 1949 still continues. I believe it will continue until we succeed...Until India’s farmers succeed,” the Ramon Magsaysay awardee writes in the closing paragraph of his book.