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He led India out of the hunger trap

Prof Swaminathan spearheaded the Green Revolution that revitalised Indian agriculture

He led India out of the hunger trap

Farmer-friendly: Prof Swaminathan was not a blind believer in the role of technology. PTI

Devinder Sharma

Food & Agriculture Specialist

HE was often hailed as the father of India’s Green Revolution. Prof MS Swaminathan, the illustrious scientist-administrator, was a ‘living legend’, as described by then UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim in a letter congratulating him for being the first recipient of the World Food Prize. His death marks the end of an era.

The best tribute that the country can pay to the great visionary is to implement the Swaminathan Commission’s report in letter and spirit.

“The history of the Green Revolution was actually written during a half-an-hour car journey that I once undertook with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi,” he once told me. To my question about how difficult it was to get the desired political will to back the agricultural revolution in the offing, Prof Swaminathan recalled that as then Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, he once accompanied Mrs Gandhi to inaugurate a building in the Pusa complex. On the way, the PM asked him: “Swami, I would go by the new wheat dwarf varieties that you are talking about. But can you give me a commitment that you will give me a surplus of 10 million tonnes in a couple of years from now, because I want the bloody Americans off my back.”

Swaminathan gave the commitment, and the rest is history.

For a country living a ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, when food would come from the ships directly to feed the teeming millions, the remarkable turnaround in agriculture led India to not only be self-sufficient but also eventually a net exporter. The saga of the Green Revolution, backed by appropriate policies, was primarily aimed at emerging out of the hunger trap. With Independence coming just four years after the Bengal Famine of 1943, the challenge of overcoming hunger had still not been met. For decades, food would come from North America under the PL-480 scheme.

Knowing that many globally influential voices had written off India, with some projecting that half of India would be led to the slaughterhouse by the mid-1970s, Prof Swaminathan’s tryst with fighting hunger would go down in history as one of the most important economic developments the world had witnessed. This not only transformed the lives of millions of people within the country but also became an inspiration for the rest of the world.

Even as an architect of the Green Revolution, Prof Swaminathan was aware of the negative consequences of intensive farming. He was a visionary in every sense, and had forewarned a number of times about the debacle lying ahead. In 1968, a few years after the Green Revolution was ushered in, he had written: “Intensive cultivation of land without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure would lead ultimately to the springing up of deserts. Indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides could cause adverse changes in the incidence of cancer and other diseases through the toxic residues present in the grains or other edible parts. Unscientific tapping of underground water would lead to the rapid exhaustion of this wonderful capital resource.”

It was during his tenure as Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines that he received an unusual alert from Indonesian President Suharto. With the Indonesian rice crop devastated by the brown planthopper pest, Suharto wanted Prof Swaminathan to provide a way out. Instead of suggesting more potent pesticides, he put together a team of scientists who went to Indonesia and advised Suharto to ban pesticides used on the rice crop, and simultaneously launch integrated pest management. Suharto banned 57 such pesticides under a presidential decree.

Not many know that Prof Swaminathan was not a blind believer in technology. Even during the days when the campaign against genetically modified crops was at its peak, his response to then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was a key factor in the moratorium that came up against the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal. In a conference at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, he presented a slide of a drumstick and then posed a question over the need for GM rice containing vitamin A. His point was that drumstick leaves cooked with rice were part of our traditional diet and could themselves provide vitamin A.

If only the environmental concerns raised up time and again by Prof Swaminathan had been appropriately addressed by the policymakers, Indian agriculture would not have been in the throes of a severe crisis in sustainability.

He also headed the Central Advisory Board on Plant Genetic Resources of the CGIAR (a consortium of international agricultural research centres). I was at that time a member of the CGIAR Central Advisory Board on Intellectual Property Rights. While the role played by him to stall the outright sale of globally available plant genetic resources to private companies remains unacknowledged, I have been a witness to the enormous effort that had gone into thwarting every effort to privatise the immense wealth of global biodiversity.

When Prof Swaminathan was appointed Chairperson the National Farmers’ Commission in 2004, he invited me to write the Zero Draft of the commission’s report that would be subsequently discussed and deliberated upon across the country before being finalised. The mandate for me was to keep the farmer in the centre, and then see how his lot could be improved. When subsequently told to not only focus on the farmer but also include various stakeholders, I apologised. But all through, Prof Swaminathan remained focused on ensuring income security for farmers. He applauded the role played by farmers in increasing food production and was always dismayed at the plight of the farming community.

The Swaminathan Commission report, presented in five parts between 2004 and 2006, was aimed at enhancing productivity, profitability and sustainability of Indian agriculture. It remains the rallying point for farmer organisations throughout the country. His suggestion to provide farmers with 50 per cent profit over the weighted average has not been taken up by successive governments.

The best tribute that the country can pay to the great visionary is to implement the Swaminathan Commission’s report in letter and spirit.


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