The year was 1984. Professor M.S. Swaminathan, the then Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, was on a short visit to India to deliver a convocation address at an agricultural university. Soon after he finished the address, he received a message from the Prime Minister’s Office conveying Indira Gandhi’s request to meet him before he left for Manila early next morning. Swaminathan rushed to New Delhi and met the Prime Minister in her office the same evening.
“Mrs Gandhi wanted me to write the Congress party manifesto,” he told me on another occasion. I asked him why she would do that as the elections were still far away. “She told me that she wanted to go for early elections,” he replied, adding that they discussed a few points she wanted to be included, and then requested him to finish it before he boarded the flight next morning.
Seven days later, Indira Gandhi was assassinated.
Subsequently, when Rajiv Gandhi called for elections, he was accused of taking advantage of the sympathy wave following his mother’s death. While all kinds of political aspersions were being ascribed, little did the nation know that Swaminathan had already written the party’s manifesto.
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Here was a legendary agricultural scientist, a plant geneticist, hailed as the father of India’s Green Revolution, instrumental in averting a mass famine as some would say, equally at ease with a finger on the electorate’s nerve. The way he interacted with distinguished academics, celebrities, and political leaders, not only in India but also internationally, reflected the tremendous respect he had earned over the years. During my short stint as a Visiting Editor to the IRRI (1987-1988), I remember scientists and employees, on the day he completed his term, queueing up to get his autograph on the T-shirts they were wearing. In 1988, for a scientist to be accorded a celebrity send-off was not so common.
In 1990, when Swaminathan chaired the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), he was invited by the President of Guyana to be the interim chair of the Iwokerma International Rainforest Programme. This initiative was basically a 360,000-hectare rainforest patch that was made available to the Commonwealth to show how tropical forests could be conserved and at the same time used sustainably for business activities that help local communities.
Later, a time capsule in Swaminathan’s name was buried deep in the rainforests by the then President of Guyana.
Swaminathan had supported a people’s movement against the proposed hydroelectric project at Silent Valley in the Western Ghats of Kerala and had played an important role in convincing Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to scrap the project and instead build a rainforest biosphere reserve. The pristine rainforest is a hub of biodiversity, harbouring numerous rare species of birds, animals, and hundreds of flowering species.
He was also able to impress upon the then Odisha Chief Minister Biju Patnaik not to disturb the unique nesting and breeding grounds of the Olive Ridley turtles at Bhitarkanika. More than half a million highly endangered turtles reach these natural breeding grounds every year. Swaminathan once shared a story of how Biju Patnaik wanted him to take the turtles away to some other spot, because he wanted to set up industries in that coastal region.
The political compulsion notwithstanding, Swaminathan understood the importance of preserving the place as a natural heritage site. In fact, he was much ahead of the thinking that is now being mainstreamed, to ascribe an economic value to the ecosystem services that nature provides.
The Keystone Dialogues that he steered included mangrove protection, the role of local communities to conserve sacred groves, the need to ensure people’s control over genetic resources, the protection of the enormous biodiversity wealth, and the conservation of unique natural endowments. That, in a way, backed the idea of ensuring farmers’ rights, which eventually received global recognition.
- M.S. Swaminathan was a legendary agricultural scientist, a plant geneticist, the father of India’s Green Revolution, instrumental in averting a mass famine.
- Swaminathan had supported a people’s movement against the proposed hydroelectric project at Silent Valley in the Western Ghats of Kerala and had played an important role in convincing Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to scrap the project.
- Swaminathan became a household name after he presented five reports of the National Commission on Farmers.
Lifting a nation out of hunger
No haze can dim the role he played to lead the country out of hunger as the story of India’s Green Revolution is now inscribed in history. Pulling the country out from a “ship-to-mouth” existence—when food would arrive in ships to feed the hungry population—to emerge food self-sufficient and then turn into a net exporter of cereals is perhaps the country’s biggest achievement of the 20th century, as I have often reiterated.
Today’s generation has little idea about how severe the food crisis was at that time. I recall asking C. Subramaniam, the then Food Minister, about how challenging it was to manage food shortages. “There was a time when we had food stocks only for about a week left in the country,” he said, adding that his officials had identified the food-carrying ship sailing closest to India. An SOS was sent to the then US President Lyndon Johnson to divert the ship to India so that thousands would not perish.
Relying on miracle dwarf wheat varieties that Dr Norman Borlaug (at the time with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a research organisation in Mexico) was trying to push, Swaminathan recognised the potential of these photo-insensitive varieties, responsive to higher doses of fertilizers, pesticides, and ample irrigation. Once the political approval came, 18,000 tonnes of the dwarf seed were imported from Mexico in 1966. The imported seed was distributed in small packs to the geographical regions identified for cultivating the new strains, and the rest is history.
A combination of factors led to the enormous success of the agricultural transformation aimed at increasing productivity as well as total production. Agricultural universities were set up at Pantnagar (now in Uttarakhand) and Ludhiana (Punjab) under the land-grant system from America, and a team of dedicated plant breeders and agronomists, many of them stalwarts in their own right, made huge contributions in breeding new high-yielding varieties that adapted to Indian conditions.
Subsequently, the wheat story was replicated in rice with elite lines coming from IRRI in the Philippines. In 1968, William Gaud, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, used the term “Green Revolution” to define the tremendous achievement.
Almost at the same time, Swaminathan began to warn about the environmental consequences of applying high doses of fertilizers and chemical pesticides. He was also very particular about the depletion of groundwater in the days to come, a thought that made him give a call, subsequently, for an Evergreen Revolution. This had little impact on policymakers, who actually promoted more Green Revolution techniques as a way to address the second-generation environmental impacts that were becoming visible.
Also Read | More wheat in private hands
Swaminathan had his share of controversies. He was held responsible for the high lysine content in the Sharbati Sonora wheat variety during the Green Revolution, for taking India’s rice germplasm to the International Rice Genebank at Los Banos in the Philippines, and for ushering in unsustainable farming practices under the garb of the Green Revolution. Nevertheless, he would still invite those who did not agree with him to seminars, conferences and interactions on various issues.
A nation’s rice wiped out
Landing in Cambodia (then known as Kampuchea) 10 years after the tyrant Pol Pot had ravaged the country, I witnessed complete devastation in the countryside. More significantly, during the Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields”, the entire Cambodian rice wealth was wiped out. Reports say that only about 40 of the 400 agricultural scientists survived the genocide. It was at that time that Swaminathan, as IRRI Director General, initiated discussions with the then Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, to rebuild the country’s agriculture. Cambodia had lost all its traditional rice varieties, its staple food, and IRRI helped rebuild the country’s economy by reintroducing 766 landraces and folk varieties that were in safe custody at the IRRI Genebank. He was also able to pull in Australia, which had strong historical linkages with Cambodia, to lay the foundation to revitalise the country’s agriculture sector.
Believing in science and ecosystem preservation, Swaminathan certainly evolved with the times. Unlike most believers in science and technology, he did not get bogged down with worshipping technology. He knew that the blind pursuit of technology could cause irreparable ecological destruction. That is why when the Coalition for GM-Free India invited him to write a preface of sorts for a book based on a compilation of “Adverse Impacts of Transgenic Crops/Foods”, he did not refuse. In fact, he wrote: “I hope the book will be widely read by all interested in ensuring that the new genetics represented by molecular biology becomes a blessing and not a curse.”
Swaminathan became a household name after he presented five reports of the National Commission on Farmers. Appointed in 2004 to head the Farmers’ Commission, as it was then called, his suggestion to give farmers weighted cost plus 50 per cent profit (C2+50) as the price for farm produce eventually became a rallying point for farmers. Although successive governments did not accept the price formula, Swaminathan stayed away from publicly acknowledging his disappointment.
In private, of course, he would express sadness. When I released his biography (in Marathi) in Pune some years ago, he categorically told me that he might not have many years left, but his desire was to see farmers being pulled out of the acute distress and misery they continued to be in. That will be the real freedom for farmers, he said.
Devinder Sharma is a leading agriculture and food policy expert, researcher, and writer.