Sunday, July 21, 2024

Nandini vs Amul | A milk plan gone sour in Karnataka

A Nandini mobile stall .

A Nandini mobile stall .
| Photo Credit: ANIL KUMAR SASTRY

Over the last four months, the Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF), one of the successful milk cooperatives of the country, has featured in the political narrative frequently. With the State heading to the polls, the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), which have been raising prominently the issue of regional pride, have been involved in a bitter fight with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been countering their narrative with a nationalist one. A series of developments involving the Nandini brand marketed by the KMF has resonated with the electorate, especially in the politically charged Old Mysore region, where the votes of the dominant and largely agrarian Vokkaligas matter.

In December 2022, in Mandya in the Vokkaliga heartland, Union Home and Cooperation Minister Amit Shah spoke of the need for cooperation between KMF and Amul, the largest milk cooperative, in technology and marketing initiatives to ensure the growth of the Indian dairy industry. The JD(S) and Congress interpreted this as an effort to merge KMF with Amul. Mr. Shah’s statement in Mandya, read alongside his earlier statement in Guwahati that a multi-State cooperative society would be created by merging five cooperative societies with Amul, was viewed as a threat to subsume the State’s own brand under the Gujarat-based milk behemoth. This led to an exchange of barbs between the BJP and the Opposition for days despite top BJP leaders, including the Chief Minister, issuing statements denying a merger.

In the last one month, KMF has again been at the centre of the political arena as the Opposition has blamed the government’s “deliberate mismanagement” of the KMF for the perceived shortage of milk for about a week. Soon after, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued an order to KMF and Aavin in Tamil Nadu asking them to label curd as “dahi.” It was forced to withdraw the order when Tamil Nadu and Karnataka opposed the move.

Currently, the political storm is over Amul announcing its entry into the Bengaluru market through sales of milk and curd on online portals, thus breaching an unwritten understanding between the two successful cooperatives that they will not compete with each other on their respective turfs. This, however, is not Amul’s first foray into Karnataka. It has been selling milk in the Mumbai-Karnataka region for the last seven years, and its other milk products have been available on shelves for a long time. The Opposition sees this as yet another attempt to undermine KMF. Statements by BJP leaders have also added fuel to the fire. For instance, BJP general secretary C.T. Ravi asked why people were opposing “Bharatiya brand Amul.” The KMF said that it was capable of meeting market challenges and there was no proposal for merger, but this almost went unheard in the din.

There are about 28 lakh members of milk societies in Karnataka. The total votes of their families are almost 50 lakh. They also hold the key to the BJP’s foray into the Vokkaliga heartland which contributes the bulk of the KMF’s membership. The BJP’s previous attempt to woo the members of these districts failed even though the post of KMF chairman went to saffron party leaders during the BJP’s rule. Current chairman Balachandra Jarkiholi’s statement that he is the only BJP leader in the KMF, which is dominated by Congress and JD(S) leaders, shows the political clout of the Opposition at the grassroots in the hinterland.

The BJP, which has been trying to make big inroads in the Old Mysore region, has added to the confusion. Its attempt to break the Opposition’s stranglehold on societies by launching a new milk bank to wean away members is yet to take shape. Currently, the milk producers are in distress: production is falling due to lumpy skin disease and they get lower remuneration despite input costs going up. After holding down milk prices for nearly two years, the government approved a raise of ₹2 a litre while KMF’s demand was ₹5 a litre. The ₹5 per litre financial incentive has not been paid to the farmers by the government for nearly six months, and dues are over ₹450 crore. The farmers hold this against the government.

Also read | Congress won’t allow BJP to raise slogan of ‘One Nation, One Milk’: Jairam Ramesh

With elections less than a month away, the BJP’s political strategy in the dairy sector seems to be in disarray. It is facing a serious challenge from the Opposition, which continues to hold sway over the dairy farmers, most of whom depend on KMF for subsistence.

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