Architect of India’s Green Revolution, agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan passes away

  • M.S. Swaminathan was known for bringing in reforms in India’s agricultural sector and leading India’s Green Revolution, for which he won several prestigious awards.
  • Swaminathan paved the way for developing high yielding wheat varieties in India to achieve food security at a time when mass starvations were predicted in the country.
  • He was the founding chairman and chief mentor of the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and advocated sustainable agriculture for food and nutrition security for all, besides strengthening and sustaining the global food system.

Renowned agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, known as the father of India’s Green Revolution, passed away in Chennai on September 28, at the age of 98.

Swaminathan was the principal architect of a reform in the agricultural sector in India that started in the 1960s. When droughts in 1965 and 1966 impacted agriculture and caused a food crisis in the country, many international experts predicted a situation of mass starvation. In the years that followed, Swaminathan, with scientific innovation and administrative skills, changed India’s agricultural trajectory and turned India from a mass importer to a self-sufficient nation in food grain production.

Swaminathan supported the agricultural industry by identifying and promoting high-yielding seeds. He also led the committee that recommended the minimum support price for farmers be 50% of the weighted average cost of production. Swaminathan was awarded the first World Food Prize, a Padma Vibhushan and the Ramon Magsaysay award, among many other national and international awards for leading India’s Green Revolution.

Talking to Mongabay India, agro-economist Devinder Sharma says that it is the end of an era. “The Green Revolution of India was the biggest achievement of the country in the 20th century. Several projections were made about India failing to feed its people. But the Green Revolution thwarted all these predictions. Swaminathan’s ability to lead the scientific community, along with ensuring the right kind of policy is framed to boost production, has delivered and ensured food security for millions of people,” he said.

Born in Kumbakonam on August 7, 1925, to Dr. M.K. Sambasivan, a surgeon, and Ms. Parvati Thangammal, Swaminathan had a remarkable career working with various Indian governments. He was nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha by former President A.P.J Abdul Kalam. Swaminathan is survived by three daughters – Soumya Swaminathan, Madhura Swaminathan, and Nitya Rao.

Noted Agricultural Scientist, M.S.Swaminathan delivering a lecture on “Crises in the Indian Agriculture”, in New Delhi on May 17, 2007. Swaminathan was the architect of India's green revolution.
Agricultural scientist, M.S. Swaminathan delivering a lecture in New Delhi in 2007. Swaminathan was the architect of India’s Green Revolution. Photo by PIB/Wikimedia Commons.

Developing wheat varieties

When India was facing a severe food crisis in the sixties, Swaminathan made a significant contribution by identifying high-yielding dwarf wheat from other parts of the world. He played a pivotal role in introducing Mexican semi dwarf wheat plants to Indian fields and contributed significantly to promoting greater acceptance of modern farming methods. All these efforts made India a food-surplus nation.

In his book, India After Gandhi, historian Ramchandra Guha gives vivid details of the food crisis in India. To many Western environmentalists, India was striking proof of Malthus’s prophecy that a rapid growth of the human population would surpass food production. Two American biologists argued that India is the first hungry nation to stand on the brink of famine and disaster. Journalists writing for international publications also wrote that a mounting tide of public disorder, fed perhaps by pockets of famine, would lead to the end of Parliamentary democracy in the country.

Guha then explains the complete turnaround story and writes, “In 1967, there was a bad drought, which particularly affected the state of Bihar, but the next year saw a bumper crop of food grains, 95 million tonnes (MT) in all. Much of this increase was accounted for by Punjab and Haryana, whose farmers had planted the new dwarf varieties of wheat developed by Indian scientists from Mexican models.”

Swaminathan was that architect who played a crucial role by identifying the value of these varieties, developed in Mexico by Norman E. Borlaug, a plant scientist. India imported 18,000 tonnes of seeds from Mexico in 1966. Borlaug highlighted this when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He wrote a letter to Swaminathan giving credit for the green revolution by recognising the value of Mexican dwarfs. He wrote, “To you, Dr. Swaminathan, a great deal of credit must go for first recognising the value of Mexican dwarfs (wheat seedlings). Had this not occurred, it is quite possible that there would not have been a Green Revolution in Asia.”

Apart from his collaboration with Borlaug to enhance wheat varieties for increased grain yield, Swaminathan established numerous demonstration and test plots in the fields to illustrate the advantages of these new breeds to farmers.

Image shows two women working in a field
M S Swaminathan established numerous test plots to demonstrate the success of different food crop varieties. Photo by MSSRF.

A visionary working for food security

Condolences poured in from all corners of India for Swaminathan with messages from dignitaries such as the President of India, the Prime Minister, and several other politicians.

In statements posted on X (formerly Twitter), the President of India Droupadi Murmu remembered him as a visionary who tirelessly worked to ensure food security while the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi stated, “At a very critical period in our nation’s history, his groundbreaking work in agriculture transformed the lives of millions and ensured food security for our nation.”

Other statements came in from Mallikarjun Kharge, President of the Indian National Congress (INC), who also paid his respects in a post on X. Sharad Pawar, a former agriculture minister, wrote a post in Marathi that the remarkable work of well-known individuals in a specific field becomes forever associated with their name. Former INC President Rahul Gandhi posted on X, “Dr. MS Swaminathan’s steadfast commitment to revolutionising India’s agriculture turned us into a food surplus country. His legacy as the Father of the Green Revolution will always be remembered. My heartfelt condolences go out to his loved ones during this time of loss.”

Swaminathan, a plant geneticist by training and Founder Chairman of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, has long been a proponent of sustainable agriculture. He advocated for transitioning from the ‘green’ to an ‘evergreen’ revolution to ensure food and nutrition security for all while maintaining the sustainability of global food systems.

His deep interest in agricultural science, combined with his father’s involvement in the freedom movement and the influence of Mahatma Gandhi, inspired him to pursue advanced studies in the field. He earned two undergraduate degrees, including one from the Agricultural College, Coimbatore.

Read more: Covid-19 and food security: Lessons for Indian Agriculture

Banner image: M.S. Swaminathan collaborated with Norman E. Borlaug to enhance wheat varieties for increased grain yield and also established numerous demonstration and test plots in the fields. Photo by MSSRF.

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