The following text is an excerpt from “Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand 30, Open”. A paper presented to the 30th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand held on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, July 2-5, 2013.
Post-independence architecture of India has been often perceived as an ongoing struggle between its two opposing ideologies, predominantly those of Gandhi and prime-minister Nehru, translating into rural and industrial, subaltern and dominant or more commonly traditional and modern.
The Dudhsagar Dairy Plant (1970-73) at Mehsana in Gujarat was designed by the prominent Indian architect Achyut Kanvinde (1916-2002). The significance of this factory does not lie solely in its unique rhythmic form of soaring ventilation shafts nor does it merely showcase the growing industrial face of independent India. Rather it provides an opportunity to understand postcolonial modernity against a unique layer of co-operative rural enterprise which led to the historic “White Revolution,” a phenomenal development in India’s dairy industry. It is a story of architecture shaped by social needs and aspirations which used the language of modernism to convey a larger purpose.
Achyut Kanvinde played an important role in disseminating and reconfiguring modern architecture in post-colonial India. The historical and cultural analysis of this dairy plant with its non-elitist background articulates a counter-position to the dominant architectural discourses on India, structured around the dualist framework of “modern/Indian” and the question of identity. In doing so, it addresses the larger debate of critical architecture—the relationship between culture and form.
Historical forces that gave rise to the construction of India’s dairy industry and its development
As discussed by the Indian political scholar Sunil Khilnani, at the turn of independence in 1947 planned industrialization was hardly an expected course that India would take in the circumstances of its huge impoverished agrarian economy. While largely debated by several intellectuals and politicians of the time, two contrasting ideologies represented the vision for India’s future. On the one hand, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) had repeatedly opposed any form of industrial modernity. His vision for the country’s progress was based on building up the indigenous village production system through cooperative structures. Gandhi asked, “Could not the villagers under co-operative scheme do with fewer carts? Why could they not have a marketing co-operative for sale of grain and crops?” In his austere way, he believed in a bottom-up mode of bringing about change from the base of the society.
On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who was to become the first Prime minister of India—was drawn towards the “West’s history for an image of India’s own future” propelling the country to massive forms of industrialization. While Nehru agreed with Gandhi’s views on the nature of traditional village society, his critique of its social and economic structures was a sustained one. Nehru believed in the virtues of modern technology for agriculture in its potential to provide self sufficiency and growth for the farmers which would transform the “backward” rural scenario. As Prakash has argued, “in the Nehruvian world, the ‘new’ and the ‘good’ were interchangeable and modernity was not only unfettered by the past but also an instrument to unfetter the past.” These two distinct if somewhat overlapping streams of thoughts about the future of India remained ingrained in its course of development. As Nehru took over the country’s leadership, he adopted a socialist democratic model with an emphasis on science and technology for its planned development—and launched programmes to build his ‘temples of the future.’ From massive concrete dams to newly planned state capitals like Le Corbusier’s City of Chandigarh, these modern temples dominated the post-independence scene relegating the Gandhian model of development to the periphery. However, it is during this period that slow change was occurring in a small part of western India (Gujarat) in the dairy sector, which kept the Gandhian spirit alive and turned into a national movement in the following decades.
AMUL and the making of White Revolution
The story of AMUL begins just before Independence (1947) in the small districts of Kaira and Anand, near Ahmedabad, Gujarat. During the later decades of colonial rule, government managed and subsidised city milk schemes were in shambles as they faced problems of insufficient production and uneven distribution. Rationing of milk and other food products led to misuse of privileges while the farmers were exploited at the hands of agents or private dairies and faced limitations imposed by colonial policies. If the initial protests were aimed at rich peasants or contractors who controlled the milk trade, it soon became a part of the nationalist political struggle for Independence with Gandhi’s support. His aides urged the farmers to organise themselves into village co-operatives to control supply and market of their milk which ensured their profits. Drawing on the active landscape of political activity surrounding the nationalist movement, and triggered by the major milk boycotts, the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers Union (KDCMPU) was formed in 1946.
Soon after, Dr. Verghese Kurien (1921-2012), the technocrat behind the growth and transformation of Indian dairying, joined the fledgling Kaira Co-operative and worked towards its efficient functioning. With the need for excess milk to be processed to milk powder and butter, Kurien started importing modern technology by getting aid from foreign agencies like the UNICEF. The Kaira cooperative at Anand was subsequently registered under the brand AMUL in 1957 (the acronym for Anand Milk Union Limited)—a word that would soon become a household name for milk products.
From 1946 to 1960, Mehsana and four other districts in Gujarat were organised into cooperative milk producers unions that used AMUL brand to expand markets instead of competing with each other. Under the strong leadership of Kurien, the AMUL model soon encompassed a wider dimension of rural development. As described by him, “a grass roots democracy through federal concept . . . It was certainly not only about milk. It was very soon becoming an instrument in social and economic change in our rural system.”
In 1964, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri visited Anand and was impressed by the working of village co-operatives and the success of “AMUL model.” He asked Kurien to replicate it throughout the country on a larger scale to eradicate milk famines and thus established the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) with Kurien as its chairman. Using commodity aid from the European Community (EC) and international funding for its technological set-up, the NDDB formally launched “Operation Flood” programme in 1970 which entailed emulation of cooperative dairying across rural India. Operation Flood was the most comprehensive dairy development programme executed between 1970-1996 in three phases which ushered in the “White Revolution”—making India eventually self-sufficient in milk and the largest milk producer in the world. The phenomenal working of Operation Flood led to mammoth infrastructure for dairy development in the country.
Achyut Kanvinde and the Architecture of the White Revolution
Achyut Kanvinde came into contact with Verghese Kurien in 1962 when he was asked to design a cattle feed plant at Anand, a small project which was to result into a life-long association. While Kanvinde’s earlier work in Ahmedabad for the scientific and industrial community exploited the potential offered by Bauhaus functionalism, it had also expressed a commitment to Nehru’s ideological development project. As the dairy industry institutionalized into NDDB in 1965, Kurien began consulting Kanvinde for the NDDB campus project at Anand. It was soon followed by the commission to design a large milk processing plant in the neighbouring district of Mehsana in 1970, an opportunity which shaped Kanvinde’s architecture in the following decades.
Due to limited experience of designing dairy buildings, Kanvinde studied the existing dairies at Bombay and Delhi. He observed that the design of those buildings was usually restricted to utilitarian factory sheds based on preconceived arbitrary considerations. While he understood that the core of dairy functioning depended on effective segregation of human and material movement, he also realised that one of the main issues in efficiency of production was excessive heat and odour generated by the powder plants which was often unsuccessfully dissipated by exhaust fans leaving the factory space unfit to work. For Kanvinde, thus the primary task was to respond to functional demands of the dairy interior: the need for effective layout and optimal ventilation which formed the central idea of the design. Working with dairy engineers, he strove to resolve the needs of structure, services and the technical programme that involved the process of milk reception and sample analysis, collection and storage, pasteurisation, milk processing (in this case condensation into milk powder), packaging and dispatching. The resulting plan comprised of a series of orthogonal spaces rationalised by a square structural concrete grid of seven metres that work in multiple ways.
A clear separation between the milk reception and powder processing areas makes the plan deceptively simple, as it becomes evident that the section is the core generator of the design. This takes us to the second important aspect—the use of sloping site to evolve a multi-level design. A raised concrete deck where the milk trucks bring the milk from village collection centres marks the entry from which milk goes to the lower level for pasteurisation. It is then transferred to the condensation plant and further to the large multi-storeyed space which houses the powder plants. Instead of conventional pumping system, gravity feed is implemented in the milk collection, storage and processing, using the site slope; a design decision which had a bearing on cost and energy saving.
A three dimensional exploration of the structural grid and rendered brick-skin walls bear an imprint on the functional as well as the formal aspects of design. While the equipment remains framed within the grid, it also provides access to the different levels with the help of walkways or bridges. To evacuate the heat generated out of milk condensing and spray drying equipment, a system of ventilation ducts linking all the working areas runs around the periphery of both the buildings eliminating the ineffective exhaust fans. These are expressed on the exterior as rhythmic shafts soaring above the roof, capped with an angular profile. Natural light and air drawn in through slit windows is combined with artificial lighting in the machinery dominated interiors, enabling a better working and hygienic environment for milk processing.
Current State of the building
In the past four decades the brick skin and concrete frame factory has continued to function without any substantial alterations and is still a landmark entity in the non-descript townscape. But compared to its earlier singular presence, it has now grown into a large institution with two additional processing plants (1983, 1991); a seven storey office building (1985), an auditorium (1985) where Kanvinde used the similar design vocabulary to maintain continuity.