by Dr Piyush Kumar
I vividly remember my last conversation with Dr Swaminathan. I was planning a twitter based conference in the field of Biotechnology in 2018. Yes!! An online conference before pandemic and before it became a norm. I emailed Dr Swaminathan, explained him the concept, asked to put his name in the advisory committee and he readily agreed. He was always willing to guide the next generation for a better scientific landscape in India. I have another incident to share.
Kamal and I were planning an issue on green revolution for Biotech Express Magazine in 2015 and we wanted to get direct quotes from Dr Swaminathan himself. To our surprise, he gave us detailed answers to our questions. We found a new respect for him. He elaborated on his motivations coming from Gandhiji’s goal of a hunger free India. He was greatly moved by Bengal famines and did not want such a misfortune to strike India again. He believed in the saying “the future belongs to science and those who make friendship with it”. I leave it up to readers to guess whose words these were.
During the 1960s, a grim forecast loomed large as demographers and economists widely predicted that food production in developing nations would be outpaced by population growth, potentially leading to widespread famine, not only in India but across Asia. At that time, the only lifeline averting such a calamity was the massive import of grains.
As a young scientist in the 1950s, Dr. M. S. Swaminathan learned of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s revolutionary Mexican dwarf wheat variety. Later, these two visionary scientists worked diligently, side by side, to develop wheat varieties that not only yielded higher grain production but also possessed sturdy stalk structures capable of supporting the increased biomass.
In 1965, Dr. Swaminathan embarked on a massive initiative, setting up thousands of demonstration and test plots in northern India to showcase small-scale farmers the potential of the genetically superior grains in their own fields. In the very first year, the harvest witnessed a threefold increase in production levels. This remarkable transformation not only improved agricultural yields but also ushered in scientific advancements that farmers themselves embraced. Dr. Swaminathan’s direct engagement with farmers transcended the barriers of illiteracy and limited formal education, endowing a generation of Indians with valuable insights into modern agricultural practices.
Dr. Swaminathan’s vision worked like a miracle for India. In just a few years, he elevated the wheat crop yield from 12 million tons to an astounding 23 million tons across four crop seasons, effectively ending India’s reliance on grain imports. His collaboration with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi yielded long-term agricultural policies and programs aimed at maintaining self-sufficiency across the nation.
His leadership and fame extended beyond India’s borders. Dr. Swaminathan chaired numerous prestigious international conferences, including the 1974 United Nations World Food Congress in Rome.
An ardent advocate of global scientific collaboration, he influenced renowned organizations and research centers such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, and the International Federation of Agricultural Research Systems for Development, where he served as Director General from 1972 to 1979.
Dr. Swaminathan’s commitment to agricultural development remained unwavering. He served as the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1979 and 1980, and he played a pivotal role in agricultural and rural development during his tenure in India’s Planning Commission from 1980 to 1982. In 1982, he assumed the position of Director General at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
In recognition of his extraordinary contributions, Dr. Swaminathan was honored as the first World Food Prize Laureate in 1987. Utilizing the funds he received from this prestigious award, he established the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, India, in 1988 (now lead by Dr Soumya Swaminathan). With a global network of contacts, he initiated dialogues among scientists, social scientists, and field workers, all with the shared goal of “reaching the unreached.” The Foundation’s initiatives continue to engage with international leaders and rural communities alike to address crucial issues, including the protection of coastal biodiversity, the promotion of biotechnological approaches in micro-level farming, the pursuit of groundbreaking innovations in ecotechnology, the facilitation of community education and technical training, the initiation of affordable, self-sustaining programs for rural Internet access, and the empowerment of grassroots-level food producers to enhance food security and sustainable development.
Dr. Swaminathan garnered a multitude of international accolades, including the 1994 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize, the UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal in 1999, the prestigious 1999 Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament, and Development, and the distinguished Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award in 2000. TIME Magazine, acknowledging his far-reaching impact, celebrated him as one of the twenty most influential figures from Asia in the 20th century. He was the first citizen of a developing nation to be elected as the President of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on science and world affairs. Dr. M. S. Swaminathan’s tireless efforts and visionary leadership continue to inspire and guide the global community in addressing critical issues of food security, sustainability, and peace.
We lost a great visionary, a scientist par excellence and an agricultural luminary. Dr Swaminathan was a proponent of free and fearless scientists. In his own words, “Indian science requires above all dedicated scientists who have the courage of the conviction. They should express their views based on scientific facts freely and fearlessly”.
The article has used following sources for some of the historical facts and figures.
Borlaug Blog – How Receiving the World Food Prize Had an Impact on My Work
Food Security in an Era of Price Volatility and Climate Change – Speech
International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)
International Union for the conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF)
Reuters: “India’s green revolutionary is back in spotlight”
Science: “Scientists: Their Rewards and Humanity”
The Guardian: “How to end hunger: lessons from the father of India’s green revolution”
The Hindu: “A great scientist and humanist”
Sustainable nutrition security for Africa: lessons from India
50 Years of Green Revolution: An Anthology of Research Papers
Scientists: Their Rewards and Humanity