FROM A FAMINE-PRONE country in the 1960s, India is now at a stage where there have been successive record harvests of rice, wheat and pulses. If there is one man India owes a big debt to for food security, it is MS Swaminathan. The agronomist and plant geneticist who architected India’s agricultural renaissance, died in Chennai on September 28 at the age of 98. Among the tributes that poured in was from AK Singh, director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI)—Swaminathan studied and worked there for a considerable period of time—who equated him to God. “In the passing away of professor Swaminathan, ends an era of agricultural research, education and disruptive innovation. If God appears to the poor and the hungry in the form of bread, as said by Mahatma Gandhi, that God is Dr Swaminathan who should be worshipped by every citizen while they eat their daily meals,” Singh said.
It is indeed impossible to overstate the importance of a man who pulled India out of the trenches of hunger by doubling wheat output in just a few years. He talked about the achievement in an interview, explaining why we hail the phase in Indian agriculture after 1964 as a revolution: “In 1947, when India became independent, we were producing about 6 million tonnes of wheat a year. By 1962, wheat production went to about 10 million tonnes a year. But between 1964 and 1968, annual production of wheat increased from about 10 million tonnes to about 17 million tonnes… It was a quantum jump in production, and that is why it was called a revolutionary step. This infused a great deal of confidence because those were days when Indian farmers had been written off by very leading authorities. External experts said that India was leading a ‘ship-to-mouth existence’.” By 1970-71, India was producing 23 metric tonnes of wheat. Indian scientists continued to breed new varieties of wheat, based on the Mexican imported ones that were better suited for rotis. The stereotype of the Indian peasant was broken. The country went from strength to strength, clocking a 7.79 per cent share in the world food grains market, based on export values, in 2022—up from 3.38 per cent in 2010.
Awarded the first World Food Prize in 1987 for not just developing and spearheading the introduction of high-yielding wheat and rice varieties into India during the 1960s but also for his work as the first Asian director general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in the early 1980s, he used the money to set up the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai in 1988. He continued to be involved with agricultural policy well into his old age, co-chairing the United Nations Millennium Project on hunger from 2002 to 2005 and heading the National Commission on Farmers from 2004 to 2006, in which time he recommended that the Minimum Support Price of crops should be at least 50 per cent more than the weighted average cost of production.
Swaminathan readily acknowledged critiques of the Green Revolution by environmentalists, economists and social scientists. “This revolution was confined to areas with assured irrigation in northwest India. However, even here, farming is becoming unremunerative due to adverse ecological and economic factors, with farmer indebtedness on the rise. The challenge now is to fight and overcome the fatigue of the green revolution in its heartland,” he wrote, coining a new term, ‘evergreen revolution’—a sustainable approach that would integrate ecological principles into technology-led agriculture.
Swaminathan was a rare scientist who was also a visionary, a leader and an able administrator. As the director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the principal secretary to the Government of India and a member of the Planning Commission, he brought clarity, focus and pragmatism to agricultural policy and implementation. He believed that the prospect of a world without hunger was a glorious legacy given to us by scientists and technologists, and as such, worked to spread technical literacy. His ideas were ahead of his time, inclusive as they were of women and our natural world. The M in his initials stands for ‘mankombu’—Tamil for deer’s horns. Swaminathan was someone who seized public policy dilemmas by the horns, and continued to critique the government’s work till the end.