In a country where around two-thirds of the population is still dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, a person like M.S. Swaminathan attains special significance. The great man, also known as the father of the Green Revolution in India, died at the age of 98 on Thursday, September 28th. Born on August 7, 1925, in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, as Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan. His father died when he was only 11, and he was brought up by the extended family. He was only 18 when the Bengal famine hit the country. He was an adult and well understood how the vagaries of the monsoon, aided by human laxity, can wreak havoc.
The disastrous impact of the famine that rippled through the sub-continent made him choose agriculture as a discipline. So, after finishing his undergraduate degree in Zoology from the University of Kerala, he studied Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Science from Tamil Nadu Agriculture Science. In 1947, he moved to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi, where he obtained a post-graduate degree with high distinction in cytogenetics in 1949.
The agricultural scientist had many career opportunities to choose from. In the book "M.S. Swaminathan: One Man's Quest for a Hunger-free World," Gopalkrishnan, G., reveals that M. S. also appeared for the Civil Service examination and managed to get into the Indian Police Services. However, agriculture being his calling, he chose to go for a UNESCO fellowship in genetics in the Netherlands that he was awarded. Later, determined to work back in India, Swaminathan turned down a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin, United States, where he was pursuing a post-doctoral research associateship.
In India, Swaminathan worked temporarily as an assistant botanist at the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, where he worked under the indica-japonica rice hybridization program. This experience would come in handy for him and the country in the future. The following year, he joined the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi. Swaminathan saw no point in the country importing food grains for consumption when seventy percent of India was dependent on agriculture. India was a nascent economy barely managing to stand on its feet.
M. S. Swaminathan is often called the "Father of the Green Revolution in India." He played an instrumental role in introducing high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice in the 1960s, which led to a significant increase in agricultural productivity and helped India achieve self-sufficiency in food production.
In the 1960s, an agricultural crisis had taken root and was gradually threatening to cripple India's nascent economy. India sought the help of Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist. After an exchange with Swaminathan, Borlaug visited India in March 1963, at the invitation of the Minister for Food and Agriculture, Sri C. Subramaniam. He travelled extensively with Dr. Swaminathan in the wheat-growing fields of the north Indian state of Punjab.
Relying on his experience and observations of the performance of his wheat breed-lines in Pakistan (where he had sent material two years earlier), Borlaug sent a consignment of a wide range of seed materials of his two Mexican dwarf wheat varieties, Sonora-64 and Lerma Rojo, to IARI in September 1963. The first experimental planting of these seeds was done in a two-hectare IARI plot. Swaminathan made modifications to the wheat varieties to make them conducive to Indian conditions. Swaminathan was a pioneer in the field of plant breeding and genetics. His work in this area had a profound impact on Indian agriculture, ushering in the Green Revolution.
Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Prize in 1970. However, he did not forget to acknowledge the contribution made by Swaminathan, and he wrote: “The Green Revolution has been a team effort, and much of the credit for its spectacular development must go to the Indian officials, organizations, scientists, and farmers. However, to you, Dr. Swaminathan, a great deal of the credit must go for first recognizing 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.”
Other aspects of the Green Revolution that had a significant impact on making it successful were rice production and the use of good chemicals and fertilizers. Swaminathan also played a role in the development of the world’s high-yielding basmati rice.
The revolution is credited with bringing prosperity to a sizeable number of farmers and changing India’s image from being a “Begging Bowl” to a ‘bread basket.’ India celebrated the Wheat Revolution in 1968 and even released a postage stamp to mark it. Subsequently, in 1971, the Government of India declared India self-sufficient in food production. Swaminathan was rewarded by being appointed as the director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and a secretary to the Government of India. In his vast career, he served in various government positions like the Principal Secretary, a rare move for scientists then, at the Planning Commission, at ICAR, etc.
Although M.S. Swaminathan missed the Nobel Prize for his work, he was recognized in 1971 when he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. In 1972, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, and in 1989, he received the Padma Vibhushan. He was also awarded the prestigious World Food Prize in 1987. In his acceptance speech, he lamented the increase in hunger despite the increase in food production.
The Mooknayak spoke to P. Sainath, an award-winning journalist whose groundbreaking work on farmer distress has won international recognition. He remembered M.S. Swaminathan fondly, narrating an incident from 2005. “M. S. Swaminathan was chairman of the National Commission of Farmers in 2005, and the suicides were at their peak. You know how difficult it is to convince such people to come to a place. I spoke to him directly and told him that the farmers' distress was at its peak. There was no formality of writing to the secretary, and he came very quickly and brought a team from the National Commission of Farmers. This led to a big clash between the Maharashtra government and me as they wanted to take him to all the safe places where he would see nothing. Then they decided to organize his trip, which he politely refused by saying that I will go where you want me to go, but I will also spend a day or two in the field. Two or three journalists, including me, also went with him. I organized the trip in terms of location. I took him to poor households and marginalized households. He was 80 at that time, and I was marvelled at his energy. Another quality was that he was willing to listen with patience. I saw him weeping while listening to the people (being translated). He adds, “He was very willing to listen to his criticism very patiently. I liked the way he dealt with the critics.”
M. S. Swaminathan's work has had a lasting impact on Indian agriculture, and he continues to be an influential figure in the field of food security and sustainable agriculture. His dedication to improving the lives of farmers and ensuring access to nutritious food for all has made him a respected figure in India and around the world.
The M.S. Swaminathan Commission, officially known as the National Commission on Farmers (NCF), was established in India in 2004 to address various issues related to agriculture and farmers' welfare. The Commission, chaired by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, submitted its final report in 2006. The key recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission report are aimed at alleviating the conditions of farmers and promoting sustainable agriculture. Some of the notable recommendations include:
Minimum Support Price: The Commission recommended that the government should fix the MSP for crops at a level that ensures a minimum 50% profit margin over the comprehensive cost of production. This was referred to as the "C2" cost, which includes not only the cost of cultivation (A2) but also the imputed cost of family labor and the rental value of owned land (A2+FL).
Women in Agriculture: Recognize and support the significant contribution of women in agriculture and promote their participation in decision-making processes related to agriculture and rural development.
Farmers' Organizations: Encourage the formation of farmers' organizations and cooperatives to empower farmers, provide them with collective bargaining power, and facilitate knowledge sharing.
Land Reforms: Implement land reforms to ensure equitable distribution of land, prevent land fragmentation, and protect the land rights of marginalized and landless farmers.
These recommendations were aimed at addressing the challenges faced by farmers in India, including agrarian distress, low farm incomes, and food security concerns. The Swaminathan Commission's report has been influential in shaping agricultural policies and discussions in India, and some states have implemented aspects of these recommendations to varying degrees.
Swaminathan had been a strong advocate for food security and rural development. He has worked on various policies and initiatives aimed at improving the livelihoods of farmers and ensuring food security for the growing population of India. He emphasized increasing farmers' income and not just output. In an interview he gave to a magazine, he said a farmer's income can be increased by improving productivity per unit area and by developing value-added products from straw, leaves, etc. It would be a big tribute to the great visionary to implement the recommendations of the report of the National Commission of Farmers, known as the Swaminathan Commission, because of the imprint he had on this report.