Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

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In 1959, a young scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute wrote to American agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug, expressing a wish to customise for India a high-yielding wheat variety the latter had initially developed for poverty-stricken Mexico in the 1950s.

Swaminathan was a renowned agricultural scientist who revolutionised India’s farming. (AP file photo)(HT_PRINT)
Swaminathan was a renowned agricultural scientist who revolutionised India’s farming. (AP file photo)(HT_PRINT)

Borlaug, the young Indian scientist would write later, “wanted to see Indian growing conditions before making up a set of breeding lines, and paid a visit in March 1963. We tested the material at locations all over north India during rabi (the winter crop cycle) 1963.”

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The scientist was Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, and the events mentioned above marked the beginning of India’s Green Revolution, transforming the country from being dependent on humiliating food donations to feed its population to being a farm powerhouse, saving millions from hunger and devastating famines.

Swaminathan, 98, the recipient of India’s second highest civilian honour the Padma Vibhushan, and the World Food Prize, widely known as the father of the Green Revolution, died at his Chennai home on Thursday.

Swaminathan’s passing has been widely mourned, at home and abroad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a post on X, said that “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”. The Food and Agricultural Organisation said his demise had brought an “end to an epoch”.

Swaminathan served as a secretary to the Union department of agricultural research (1972-1979), headed top state-run farm institutions in his career, and was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha (2007-2013). Time magazine had named him as one among 20 most influential persons of the 20th century.

Swaminathan and Borlaug found that the semi-dwarf wheat variety, if grown under the right conditions and with policy support, could raise India’s food grain productivity dramatically. Along with the then agriculture minister, C Subramanian, and experts at the erstwhile Planning Commission, Swaminathan worked on a policy to subsidise fertilisers and power while expanding irrigation cover to promote the wheat variety he had developed for India, utilizing British-era water canals in Punjab and Haryana.

The variety was fine-tuned during several trials and, in 1968, the country’s wheat output jumped to 17 million tonne, with the previous highest production being 12 million tonne in 1964. With successive plantings, the staple’s output rose exponentially. This turn of history is now known as India’s Green Revolution.

Before the Green Revolution, India had signed off on an agreement with the US known as “Public Law 480” to qualify for food aid. It was not just humiliating. With the Cold War on, food assistance was a political hazard because aid came tied to conditions. A taste of this came when the US once stopped desperate wheat shipments to India for 48 hours right in the middle of a drought.

In chasing higher GDP growth rates, policymakers often tend to gloss over two vital facts. One, farm growth can cut poverty twice as fast as industrial growth. Two, a 1% rise in agricultural output raises industrial production by 0.5% and national income by 0.7%, according to research. The gains in wheat productivity from Swaminathan’s work led to rural prosperity, raising by the 1970s the purchasing power of farmers. Demand for farm machinery went up, prompting state-owned manufacturers such as Hindustan Machine Tools to produce them in an era of socialist planning.

Almost simultaneously, another breakthrough came when Swaminathan got hold of a fertiliser-responding high-yielding of variety of Indica rice from the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute and improvised it to suit Indian conditions, which made India a large cereal producer capable of exporting its surpluses.

Nearly 18,000 tonne of seeds of the wheat variety Swaminathan finetuned for Indian conditions were dispatched to food-bowl states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Along with minimum support prices, fertiliser subsidies and irrigation cover in these pockets, farmers overwhelmingly adopted the improved breed.

Things could have been different had Swaminathan, a plant geneticist by training, taken up a job offer as a police officer, which he spurned to do higher research in agriculture after graduating from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. He earned his PhD from Cambridge University in 1952. He then travelled to the US on the liner Queen Elizabeth for post-doctoral studies in Wisconsin.

“Swaminathan’s contributions are of course well-known. At the end of the day, by ensuring food self-sufficiency, he saved lives, death and destruction. That’s how I look at him,” said S Mahendra Dev, an economist who formerly headed the federal body that recommends minimum support prices for crops and is now the editor of the journal EPW.

When India was ruled by the British, drought was a word for deadly famines. In 1943, the Bengal famine, after a missed monsoon, killed an estimated 4 million people. Swaminathan’s work led to a sharp increase in grain output, helping avoid a scary “Malthusian world” of food production failing to keep pace with population growth. From about 50 million tonne in 1950-51, India now produces on average upwards of 250 million tonne of cereals annually.

During 1965-66, when Swaminathan was still testing out his wheat variety, a menacing consecutive drought had taken hold. Food output dropped 36% in those two years, data show. All through the 1940s and 1950s, deadly famines were common.

India still uses the same technologies Swaminathan developed to grow food. In 2009, when India had its worst drought in three decades in terms of rainfall, the country managed to produce a million more tonne of foodgrain than it did in 2007, a normal-monsoon year, a testament to Swaminathan’s contributions.

Dev said Swaminathan, however, forewarned farmers in 1968 not to treat the productivity gains as an “evergreen revolution” by overusing subsidised agricultural chemicals, which he said would ruin soil health. Today, food-bowl states such as Punjab, are battling plateaus in farm yields and soil toxicity precisely because of overuse of cheap fertilisers.

Swaminathan is survived by three daughters:Soumya Swaminathan, a top WHO scientist, economist Madhura Swaminathan, and gender and rural development expert Nitya Rao. Born in Kumbakonam on August 7, 1925 to M.K. Sambasivan, a surgeon, and Parvati Thangammal, Swaminathan devoted his later life to sustainable agriculture, traditional farming practices and nutrition through his eponymous Chennai-based foundation.

A key contribution was his recommendations as the chair of the National Commission on Farmers in 2004, in which made a bunch of policy recommendation on improving farm incomes.

An important recommendation was that benchmark crop prices should be fixed such that they give 50% returns over costs, a model which was implemented by the Modi government in 2018. Farmers, however, say the measure doesn’t take into full account cultivations costs as recommended by Swaminathan.

As a Rajya Sabha MP, Swaminathan repeatedly warned about growing unsustainability of Indian agriculture and the dangers of climate the crisis. Arguing for a private member’s bill he brought on women farmers’ rights, he criticized the very Green Revolution he helped to usher in, saying the government and farmers alike would ignore a shift to climate-resilient agricultural system at their own cost.

“The future of food security will depend on a combination of the ecological prudence of the past and the technological advances of today,” he told the Upper House of Parliament.

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