M.S. Swaminathan (1925-2023): A truly human life dedicated to science and society

A global scientist, he was passionately committed to eliminating hunger in India and the world.

Published : Oct 04, 2023 20:19 IST - 6 MINS READ

Renowned agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan.

Renowned agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan. | Photo Credit: NAGARA GOPAL

The passing away of Professor M.S. Swaminathan recently at the age of 98 years has led to an outpouring of grief from thousands of ordinary people. A high proportion of them are from rural India, engaged in crop agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries or forestry as their main source of livelihood, and most are poor. A significant proportion are women, likely the largest single group among those grieving. Many in the scientific community, well-informed urban middle classes, policymakers and bureaucrats working in the area of rural development, and highly qualified/skilled professionals including teachers, doctors, engineers, and so on, also feel a great sense of loss.

The coverage and commentary, in the print, television, and digital media, while inadequate, have been almost uniformly appreciative of the remarkable contributions of Prof. Swaminathan (MSS hereafter) to agriculture and food security. There have been a few notes of disharmony from some ecological fundamentalists not adequately familiar with his commitment to economic, social, and environmental sustainability, but these have been relatively minor in scale.

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This is indeed testimony to the remarkable abilities of MSS in several domains. I shall mention here some of them. He not only made substantial scientific contributions pushing the knowledge envelope, but also linked such work with policy as well as technology. He not only built/helped build institutions that did excellent work in science-based agriculture and rural development but also provided space for the scientists and the farmers to come together and learn from one another. He was in touch with policymakers, social activists, government officials and non-government grassroots development activists.

A global scientist

The contributions of MSS to agricultural sciences have been brought out in many of the tributes that have appeared in the media. I shall not focus on them. I wish to highlight some aspects of the work of MSS that need to be more widely known. I had referred above to the enormous appreciation in India for the contributions of MSS. But MSS is widely appreciated globally.

The American agronomist Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), who won the Nobel Prize for Peace and is also a key figure along with MSS in the Green Revolution at the international level, wrote: “The Green Revolution has been a team effort and much of the credit for its spectacular development must go to the Indian officials, organisations, scientists, and farmers. However, to you, Dr. Swaminathan, a great deal of the credit must go for first recognising the potential value of the Mexican dwarfs. Had this not occurred, it is quite possible that there would not have been a Green Revolution in Asia.”

I cite this comment just to remind ourselves that MSS belongs to the global community of scientists.

MSS was passionately committed to eliminating hunger in India and the world. In a fine presentation he made at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in 2005, MSS provided a clear perspective on the evolution of research as well as policy in the domain of food and nutrition security for all. He noted that the Green Revolution in the 1960s provided a message of hope in striking a balance between the rates of growth in population and food production. Tracing the link between science and progress in agriculture in the mid- to late-1960s, MSS pointed out that Green Revolution as it unfolded in India was an example of synergy between science, technology, and public policy. He highlighted the fact that China was the home of Green Revolution in rice. Even as he recognised the enormous socio-economic and political inequality in the prevailing international order, for MSS, science and its societal applications were inherently global.

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MSS had cautioned about ecological concerns relating to the practice of intensive agriculture as early as 1968 in his address to the Indian Science Congress. He had this to say on the concept of ‘evergreen revolution’, more than three decades ago, in 1990: “What nations with small farms and resource-poor farmers need is the enhancement of productivity in perpetuity, without associated ecological or social harm. The green revolution should become an ever-green revolution rooted in the principles of ecology, economics, and social and gender equity.”

Summarising the emerging challenges in sustainable agriculture, MSS said in his 2005 presentation: “Our ability to achieve a paradigm shift from green to an ever-green revolution and our ability to face the challenges of global warming and sea level rise will depend upon our ability to harmonise organic farming and the new genetics… Such a challenge can be met only by harnessing the best in frontier technologies and blending them with our rich heritage of ecological prudence. Ecotechnologies for an ever-green revolution should be the bottom line of our strategy to shape our agricultural future.”

“MSS made enormous contributions to scientific advances in agriculture and equally important contributions to policymaking. The Green Revolution pioneered by him was rooted in science and must continue to be so rooted.”

Since 2005, the public discussion has centred around the important recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers chaired by MSS relating to the provision of minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural produce. The historic farmers’ movement with more than 500 farmers’ organisations participating under the leadership of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, made “MSP as per MSS Commission” one of its key demands. Today, MSS and his formula for MSP have reached and have resonated among millions of farmer households across the country, and their voices succeeded in making the powerful central government rescind the three controversial farm laws. The enormity of this outcome is yet to be fully appreciated, but in its own way, it testifies to the remarkable ability of a tall scientist to feel the pulse of farmers.

MSS made enormous contributions to scientific advances in agriculture and equally important contributions to policymaking. The Green Revolution pioneered by him was rooted in science and must continue to be so rooted. Beyond the green (and the evergreen) revolution, MSS has contributed to putting not just foodgrain production, but food and nutrition security for all, in a life cycle approach, on the agenda. His work was critical to the passing of The National Food Security Act a decade ago.

The focus on gender equality was a consistent theme of the work of MSS. The statesman-like personal qualities of MSS enabled him to work with a variety of different institutions, structures and individuals, for the common cause of not just agriculture but the entire agrarian population.

Finally, the personal qualities of MSS that I have had the privilege of observing for nearly two decades have been exceptional, and have contributed to the remarkably worthwhile life that MSS led. It can be said of MSS, as a young Marx wrote at the age of 18 about the reflections of a young man on the choice of a career, that “the tears of noble people would fall on his ashes”.

The author is a development economist.

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