Just a month before Karnataka goes for Assembly elections, a new political row is boiling in the state over milk products.
On 5 April, the Gujarat-based dairy brand Amul announced, “A new wave of freshness with milk and curd is coming to Bengaluru. More information coming soon. #LaunchAlert”
The announcement triggered severe backlash from pro-Kannada organisations and the Opposition, fearing that Karnataka’s homegrown brand Nandini under the Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF) will be “destroyed.”
So, what is the controversy about? Are there reasons to fear Amul’s entry into Karnataka? Was a merger on the table? We explain.
What Is the Controversy?
The controversy began last year when Union Home Minister and first Minister of Cooperation Amit Shah announced on 30 December, “Amul and KMF together will work towards ensuring a primary dairy in every village of Karnataka."
The statement was seen as an attempt to merge the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (Amul) with Nandini.
Since the KMF provides livelihood to more than 25 lakh farmers in Karnataka, Shah's statement triggered a #SaveNandini campaign.
KMF's network comprises nearly 22,000 villages, 24 lakh milk producers, and 14,000 cooperative societies that procure approximately 84 lakh liters of milk every day.
Are There Reasons to Fear Amul’s Entry Into Karnataka?
Seeing the outrage, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had clarified that “Nandini will always maintain its separate identity…The merger of Nandini into Amul is wrong imagination..."
However, the fears by locals and the Opposition were not unfounded. Amit Shah had announced in Sikkim in October 2022 that the process of forming a multi-state cooperative society by merging Amul and five other cooperative societies had started, Mint reported.
Meanwhile, Jayen Mehta, managing director of the GCMMF, has now said, "For general trade, we will need to bring down price points. There is no such plan currently. And a modern trade entry of Amul in Bengaluru will happen only six months later," The Financial Express quoted him as saying.
Acknowledging the Twitter storm over Amul's entry, Mehta added that the brand is currently looking at e-commerce/quick commerce channels and not looking at general trade.
Notably, Amul's move to Karnataka seems to be planned.
Three years ago, RS Sodhi, the then managing director of the GCMMF, had said in an interview, “We started with the west, then went to the north, and east... Somehow we had not gone to the south."
He added, "We realised in the past 10 years that a lot of private players have come, and some of them are not giving good prices to the market. So we thought this is the best opportunity. Now if we don’t enter the south, we will be losing, and we will be giving a cakewalk to other players."
With the aim to take Amul's business to around Rs 10,000 crore, the company had announced an investment of about Rs 200-300 crore over the next two years, as per Sodhi.
Meanwhile, the issue is not just about there being a free market or Nandini being Karnataka’s pride, but also highlights how there might be a possible attempt to undermine the principles of federalism.
Cooperatives come under the state list as per the Indian Constitution. However, once the Ministry of Cooperation was set up in July 2021, concerns about the Union government taking over state cooperatives have only increased due to statements about setting up multi-state cooperative societies.
How Has the Opposition Reacted?
Despite assurances from the ruling government that there is not going to be a merger, Amul's announcement on 5 April has triggered backlash from pro-Kannada organisations.
On 10 April, Karnataka Rakshana Vedike protested in Bengaluru to oppose the sale of Amul milk in Karnataka and encourage Nandini products.
Meanwhile, Karnataka Congress President DK Shivakumar visited a Nandini Milk parlour in Hassan on Monday, 10 April, and bought several milk products to support the homegrown brand.
"In Karnataka, it's a question of our farmer's rights. More than 70 lakh farmers produce milk and give it to Nandini. Gujarat's Amul is also by farmers. But it's not right to push Amul forward and Nandini back. Their (BJP) government has not provided any help to farmers. We have to save our product and our farmers."Karnataka Congress president DK Shivakumar
On 8 April, Congress leader and former state chief minister Siddaramaiah had called on the people saying that "all Kannadigas should pledge not to buy Amul products" over speculations of the merger.
He further stated, “In addition to language treason by the imposition of Hindi and land treason by trespassing within the state borders, now the BJP government is going to betray the farmers by shutting down Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF), which is the livelihood of millions of dairy farming families in the country."
He added, "Banks built by our elders in Karnataka were eaten up. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister Amit Shah have hatched a plan to adopt Nandini, who is now a sanjeevini of the farmers. The state's dairy industry has been rocked ever since Amit Shah, who is also the Union Cooperation Minister, proposed the merger of KMF and Amul. Amul is entering through the backdoor in the face of strong Kannadiga opposition to the merger proposal."
Even JD(S) second-in-command HD Kumaraswamy protested against the move. He said that Amul is desperate to disrupt Nandini.
In a series of tweets targeting the BJP government, Kumaraswamy said, "Now there is a third plot to finish the lifeline of Kannadigas – Nandini."
He said the previous two plots (merger of Nandini with Amul and printing the Hindi word 'dahi' instead of 'curd') both failed due to strong opposition from Kannadigas.
However, he added, "the central government through Amul is going to make the third plot successful."
Furthermore, Bruhat Bengaluru Hotels Association President PC Rao told Bengaluru Mirror that in protest against Amul, the hotels in Bengaluru city will be using only Nandini brand to support local farmers
How Has BJP Defended Its Position?
Accusing the Congress of politicising the issue, Bommai said:
"We have absolute clarity with regard to Amul. Nandini is a national brand. It's not restricted to Karnataka. We have popularised Nandini as a brand in other states as well."
He claimed that under the BJP government milk production has increased in the state and incentives have also been given to the milk producers.
Further, state Health Minister K Sudhakar also hit out at Congress and said, “Nandini products are sold in other states and countries too and our Nandini brand is capable of facing any competition. The Congress is doing politics in everything and shedding crocodile tears for farmers."
Dismissing Amul as a threat, Sudhakar added that not just Amul, but over 16 different private and public sector brands are selling their milk products in the state, but Nandini, due to its high quality, remains the most preferred brand in the market.
The issue seems to be milked further since a majority of milk producers are from Old Mysuru region such as Mandya, Mysuru, Ramanagara, and Kolar, and central Karnataka's Devanagere district, making their votes important.
While both Amul and Nandini milk products are available on delivery apps like Zepto and BlinkIt, there is a clear difference in prices between the two. While Nandini’s toned milk is priced at Rs 39 a litre, Amul is selling the same at Rs 54. Amul's half-litre curd is priced at Rs 30 while Nandini sells the same for Rs 24.
Despite the difference in prices, it remains to be seen whether the two brands can co-exist, or whether Nandini will be forced to merge with Amul.