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MS Swaminathan, the father of Green Revolution, dies

Sep 28, 2023 05:06 PM IST

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the agriculturalist was instrumental in bringing industrial farming to India, making the country self-sufficient in food and reducing widespread hunger

Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, 98, popularly known as the father of India’s Green Revolution, died at his Chennai home on Thursday. Under his tutelage, in a career spanning nearly half a century, the agricultural scientist transformed India from being dependent on humiliating food donations to feed its population to being self-sufficient, saving millions from deadly famines.

Swaminathan was a renowned agricultural scientist who revolutionised India’s farming. (AP file photo)
Swaminathan was a renowned agricultural scientist who revolutionised India’s farming. (AP file photo)

A winner of the World Food Prize in 1987, Swaminathan’s passing is being widely mourned, at home and abroad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked, in a post on the social-media platform X, that “at a very critical period in our nation’s history, his groundbreaking work in agriculture transformed the lives of millions and ensured food security for our nation”.

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The Food and Agricultural Organisation said his demise had brought an “end to an epoch”.

A young Swaminathan had collaborated with scientist Norman Borlaug, a Nobel laureate, to customize for India a high-yielding wheat variety Borlaug had developed for poverty-stricken Mexico in the 1950s.

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“I therefore approached Dr. Borlaug in 1959 for some of his semi-dwarf wheat breeding material. Dr. Borlaug wanted to see Indian growing conditions before making up a set of breeding lines and paid a visit in March 1963. We tested the material at locations all over north India during rabi 1963,” Swaminathan wrote in a memoir years later.

The two found that the winter wheat variety, if grown under the right conditions and with policy support, could raise India’s foodgrain productivity dramatically.

Swaminathan was then a scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and part of group which the then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri would consult on matters of food security.

Swaminathan, along with the then agriculture minister, C. Subramanian, and experts at the erstwhile Planning Commission put together a policy to subsidize fertilizers and power while expanding irrigation cover to promote the dwarf wheat variety, utilizing British-era water canals in Punjab and Haryana.

Glitches with the variety were fixed after several trials and in 1968, the country’s wheat output went up to 17 million tonne, the previous highest production being in 1964 at 12 million tonne. With every successive season, the staple’s output rose exponentially. This turn of history is now known as India’s Green Revolution.

Before the Green Revolution, India had signed off on an agreement with the US called the “Public Law 480” to qualify for food aid. It was not just humiliating. With the Cold War on, food assistance was a political hazard because aid came tied with conditions. A taste of this came when the US once stopped desperate wheat shipments to India for 48 hours right in the middle of the drought.

In chasing higher and higher GDP growth rates, India often tends to gloss over two vital facts.

One, farm growth can cut poverty twice as fast as industrial growth. Two, a 1% rise in agricultural output raises industrial production by 0.5% and national income by 0.7%, according to research. In other words, the country’s fortunes are structurally tied to its farmers.

The gains in wheat productivity therefore led to higher farm incomes and rural prosperity, raising by the 1970s, the purchasing power of farmers. Demand for farm machinery went up, prompting state-backed manufacturers such as Hindustan Machine Tools to produce them in an era of socialist planning.

Almost simultaneously, another breakthrough came when India got hold of a fertiliser-responding high-yielding VARIETY of “Indica” rice from the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute.

Nearly 18,000 tonnes of their seeds were dispatched to food-bowl states of Punjab, Haryana and western UP. Along with minimum support prices, fertilizer subsidies and irrigation cover in these pockets, the Green Revolution would soon make India a cereal powerhouse.

Things could have been very different had Swaminathan, a plant geneticist by training, taken up a job as a police officer, which he spurned to do higher research in agriculture after graduating from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

“Swaminathan’s contributions are of course well known. At the end of the day, by ensuring food self-sufficiency, he saved lives, death and destruction. That’s how I look at him,” said S. Mahendra Dev, an economist who formerly headed the federal body that recommends minimum support prices for crops and the editor of the journal EPW.

In the British period, drought was a word for deadly famines. In 1943, the Bengal famine, after a missed monsoon, killed an estimated four million. Swaminathan’s work led to a sharp increase in grain output, helping avoid a scary “Malthusian world” of food production failing to keep pace with population growth. From about 50 million tonne in 1950-51, grain harvests are now in the realm of 300 million tonne annually.

During 1965-66, when Swaminathan was still testing out his wheat variety, a consecutive drought had put India on a knife’s edge. Food output dropped 36% in those two years, the data show. All through the 1940s and 1950s, deadly famines were common.

India still uses the same technologies Swaminathan developed to grow food. In 2009, when India had its worst drought in three decades in terms of rainfall, the country managed to produce a million more tonnes of foodgrains than it did in 2007, a normal year, a testimony to Swaminathan’s work.

Dev said Swaminathan however had forewarned farmers in 1968 not to treat the productivity leap as an “evergreen revolution” by overusing subsidized agricultural chemicals, which he said would ruin soil health. Today, food-bowl states, such as Punjab, are battling flattening cereal productivity and soil toxicity precisely because of overuse of cheap fertilisers.

Swaminathan is survived by three daughters -- Soumya Swaminathan, Madhura Swaminathan and Nitya Rao. His wife Mina Swaminathan predeceased him. Born in Kumbakonam on August 7, 1925, to M.K. Sambasivan, a surgeon, and Parvati Thangammal, Swaminathan earned his PhD from Cambridge University in 1952. He then travelled to the US on the liner Queen Elizabeth for further field studies in Wisconsin.

Swaminathan has been a recipient of countless awards and honours, including the Padma Vibhushan, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award, Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Albert Einstein World Science Award, among others.

A key contribution was his recommendations as the chair of the National Commission on Farmers in 2004, in which he made a bunch of policy recommendations on improving farm incomes.

In 2007, President APJ Abdul Kalam nominated Swaminathan to Rajya Sabha for a six-year term. Swaminathan also founded an eponymous research foundation, which worked to promote nutrition, health, millets and traditional farming knowledge systems.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Zia Haq reports on public policy, economy and agriculture. Particularly interested in development economics and growth theories.

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