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A great visionary, Swaminathan transformed India from a food begging nation to exporter


His 98 year life was
dedicated to the task of guaranteeing food
security for the poor

By Tirthankar Mitra

Green is stated to be the colour of envy, but it was the colour of life to Mankombu Sambasivam Swaminathan, architect of Green Revolution which metamorphosed India's image from a begging bowl to a bread basket. A nonagenarian, M S Swaminathan was full of beans and till his last breath believed that hunger is the worst form of poverty.

The man of ideas and ideology, Swaminathan collaborated with fellow scientist Norman Borlaug and others to develop high yielding varieties of rice and wheat. The work of these outstanding agricultural scientists could not have fructified at a more opportune moment as the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had called upon the nation to skip a meal a day to combat the food crisis looming large.

Shastri could not have had a better captain to pilot the nation through the food crisis than Swaminathan. Responding to the challenge in hand was no knee jerk reaction for the Kerala University alumni.

Deeply moved by the man made Bengal Famine of 1943 which resulted in the death of 3 million people, Swaminathan then a student of Kerala University had made up his mind to use agricultural research to help poor farmer to produce more. Unknowingly, he was deciding to put in effect the words of a man who as the first Prime Minister of the country had said “ cannot wait.”

A quantum leap in agricultural production was indeed the need of the hour. Strings which were associated with the aid in food from abroad were in sight; but soon the process was threatening to turn into food with ropes. But with the hour, came the man. Swaminathan's work revolutionised Indian agriculture helping the country in staving off famine and self sufficiency in food production.

Though Swaminathan had nothing to do with , he arrived at an early realisation that agriculture in India should be weaponised to fight both famine and rural livelihood. His efforts together with those working with him led to almost doubling of the nation's crop yield from 12 million tons to 23 million tons in four crop seasons.

Statistics as above is often derided. But the fact remains that it ended the nation's dependence on grain imports. In the fitness of things, Swaminathan was awarded the first ever the Food Prize for his role in awarding high yielding wheat and rice varieties.

The scientist who changed the and the status of India was showered with many honours including Magsaysay, Padma Shri, Padma Bhusan and Padma Vibhusan but not Bharat Ratna. Perhaps his achievements did not meet the criteria for it nor was his lobby strong enough.

Coming down to brass tacks, Swaminathan's triumph lay in recognising the potential of new generic strains or “plant type” responsive to more fertiliser and water application. It needs to be recalled he had the facilities of Bhakra Nangal dam and Damodar Valley Corporation in place. Swaminathan was abreast of the latest development of agriculture science. Coupled with it was his ability, rare among the tribe of scientists to work through the bureaucratic rigmarole and political establishment turning his strategic vision into reality in the crop fields all over the country.

Indian agriculture sector is on an even keel today. But to call a spade by no other name, it lacks an individual like MSS who would with missionary zeal doggedly follow strategic objectives for the farm sector.

One must give their dues to ministers and bureaucrats like C Subramanian and B Sivaramakrishnan who valued scientific opinion and could take bold decisions. Importing 18,000 tons of seeds of Borlaug's Mexican wheat was one such decision which deserves mention. Swaminathan is no more. But his ideas and enthusiasm continues to pilot the solution to emerging challenges ranging from under-nutrition to environmental degradation and global warming.

A farmer may have been put behind the bars for asking the chief minister of this state the reason behind the spiralling of fertiliser prices. The fertiliser price rise problem would have vexed this eminent scientist and he would have set himself upon a path to bring it down. So many dreams of Swaminathan remain unfulfilled. But their pursuit cannot be abandoned.

It is upto the young brigade to carry on the torch Swaminathan lit. He and his team deserve all the credit for the 40 per cent of global food exports coming from India. The challenge is bigger with climate change and depleting resources. Swaminathan foresaw this and envisioned an “Evergreen Revolution” which can be ushered in by “improvement of productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm.” Such was his vision. (IPA Service)

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