A visionary and a statesman

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

C. Subramaniam is awarded the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award.

AMONG the numerous accolades showered on C. Subramaniam, the Father of the Green Revolution, who has been awarded the nation's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, the most befitting one related to his uncanny ability to spot talent and entrust the right people with the right responsibility. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, who played a major role in translating the dream of a 'green revolution' into reality, former Agriculture Secretary B. Sivaraman (who, along with Subramaniam and Swaminathan, formed the three 'S's instrumental in heralding the Green Revolution), and Dr. V. Kurien, Chairman of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), who ushered in the White Revolution, were hand-picked by Subramaniam. That all these men distinguished themselves in their fields and became institutions in themselves is history.

Kurien, who spoke to Frontline about Subramaniam, said: "I always found him less of a politician and more of a manager who could bring out the best in people." Dr. S. Venkitaramanan, who accompanied Subramaniam as his private secretary to New Delhi when the latter was summoned by Jawaharlal Nehru, describes him as "a jewel among statesmen and the greatest visionary I have known, one who knew how to inspire his subordinates and his equals." Subramaniam has left his mark on every field he touched, said Venkitaramanan, who went on to become the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

B.S. Raghavan, former Chief Secretary of Tripura and Planning Adviser to the United Nations, who "has had the privilege of interacting closely with Subramaniam on a day-to-day basis for almost a decade now", said that when Subramaniam took over as Union Food and Agriculture Minister in 1964, a study by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation that spelt doom for India on the food front was among the first documents that he dealt with. The 1961 study predicted that in five years the population of India would outstrip the production of rice and wheat and the country would face a major calamity. According to Raghavan, Subramaniam's response to the study, which perked him up instead of making him gloomy, was: "This is precisely what will not happen." One of the first things that Subramaniam did was to visit centres of science and technology and throw the gauntlet before the scientific community. "At one of the meetings," said Raghavan, "he noticed a man who was very excited by what he was saying... Subramaniam thought it would be worthwhile to involve that person in the exercise. That person was none other than Dr. M.S. Swaminathan."

Next, Subramaniam prepared a paper titled 'Application of Technology in Agriculture', and despite objections from the Finance Ministry, went ahead with the massive exercise of importing 10,000 tonnes of high-yielding Mexican variety seeds for wheat cultivation. However, before he put his plan into action, he travelled across the country and met farmers to guage their response since he knew that the proposed "revolution" would not succeed without the total support of the farming community. Farmers' clubs were formed all over the country; Subramaniam's earnestness and conviction propelled these clubs.

With a dedicated scientist like Swaminathan at the helm of the scientific community that spearheaded the project, and Sivaraman providing the required administrative support, Subramaniam placed the proposal before Parliament. According to Raghavan, had Subramaniam not done this, and had he failed to make the policymakers his allies, the entire proposal would have collapsed when he left the scene.

According to Kurien, Subramaniam's greatness lay in the fact that he handed over the entire credit for the Green Revolution to the scientists. Kurien narrated what Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel laureate who was invited by Subramaniam to give a proper direction to the Green Revolution, had to say about the latter.

"Borlaug told me," said Kurien, "that the scientists had opposed the bringing in of the Mexican seeds on the ground that these might bring new diseases to India. They advised him against importing these seeds, claiming that they were on the verge of a major breakthrough as far as an Indian variety was concerned. B. Sivaraman advised his Minister not to buy this story since it would then mean leading a ship-to-mouth existence. So, despite the opposition, Subramaniam brought in the seeds and asked Dr. Swaminathan and other scientists to carry out trials under different climatic conditions. The whole thing was a roaring success." "My unhappiness is," said Kurien, "that the key role played by Subramaniam in the whole thing is hardly mentioned."

Venkitaramanan admires Subramaniam "for knowing when to resist or fight politicians." He said: "I was privileged to work closely with Subramaniam for nearly a decade. It was a pleasure to watch the way he would sow the seeds of new ideas in the minds of people working with him." He described Subramaniam as a "great visionary, with the courage to plough a lonely furrow," when the whole world tried to block his attempts at changing the face of India's agriculture. Venkitaramanan said that despite opposition from various quarters, Subramaniam went ahead with his plans for the Green Revolution, the way he always did when he felt that what he was doing was right.

When the decision to set up the NDDB was taken in the mid-1960s, it was suggested that the Board have its headquarters in New Delhi and be chaired by the Food Minister, with another politician or bureaucrat appointed Vice-Chairman. Subramaniam, however, decided that Kurien would be the Chairman. "When he asked me to take over as Chairman," said Kurien, "I laid down two conditions - the NDDB should be located in Anand and not Delhi, as I do not like Delhi's climate, and that I should not be paid a salary as I have antipathy to becoming a government servant." Subramaniam agreed to the conditions and "gave me a blank cheque", Kurien said.

THE man who ushered in an era of self-sufficiency on the food front hails from an agricultural family in Pollachi near Coimbatore. Born in 1910, Subramaniam completed his early education in Pollachi before moving to Chennai to take a degree in law. Subramaniam's participation in the freedom struggle took him to prison. He was later elected to the Constituent Assembly and had a hand in the framing of the Constitution.

Hand-picked by Rajaji in 1951, Subramaniam was trained in the rudiments of politics and administration. He was a Minister (Education, Law and Finance) in the then Madras State from 1952 to 1962. He was the Leader of the House in the Madras Legislative Assembly for 10 years from 1952. His stint as a Central Minister began in 1962 and lasted for over ten years. The portfolios that he held included Finance, Defence, Planning and Industrial Development, besides Food and Agriculture.

His contributions to Tamil Nadu are substantial. Thanks to his initiative, Tamil Nadu became one of the few States to introduce free primary education. During the heady days of the anti-Hindi agitation in 1965, Subramaniam demonstrated his solidarity with the cause of the Tamil language by resigning from the Central Cabinet. He was, however, persuaded by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to withdraw his resignation.

When the historic split in the Congress took place in 1969, he cast his lot with Indira Gandhi and became the interim president of the faction she headed. He stood by her when she clamped the Emergency in 1975, but parted ways later and joined the Congress faction led by K. Brahmananda Reddy.

Subramaniam was appointed Governor of Maharashtra in 1990. He transformed the Raj Bhavan into a beehive of activity by holding frequent meetings with leading academics, industrialists, representatives of non-governmental organisations and prominent citizens on issues crucial to the community. He resigned the post in 1993 following a controversy over his remarks about the then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Subramaniam returned to Chennai and carried on his crusade against corruption in public life. He continues his longstanding association with the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. He has published three of the four volumes of his autobiography titled The Hand of Destiny.

The 88-year-old Subramaniam, whose admirers feel that the Bharat Ratna was long overdue, is described by Raghavan as "an evergreen, ever-receptive, ever-absorbing, ever-inquisitive, ever-studious and ever-capacious mind, an ideas man who listens to other people's ideas, accepts them, and, best of all, translates them into action."

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