MS Swaminathan: The visionary ensured no one goes hungry in India

Born in the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, MS Swaminathan was moved by Bengal famine of 1943 and decided to pursue agriculture research

CHENNAI:  Tamil literature calls hunger a formidable enemy that must be trounced. Poet Bharathiyar said the whole world must be destroyed even if one individual is denied food. Professor MS Swaminathan, fondly called MS, epitomised these ideals.

Born to MK Sambasivan, a surgeon, and Parvati Thangammal in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu on August 7, 1925, Swaminathan’s upbringing was rooted in social service. Both his parents were nationalists and staunch followers of Mahatma Gandhi. MS’s father built a hospital in Kumbakonam to serve the poor and helped control lymphatic filariasis caused by mosquitoes when he was elected chairman of the municipality.

The incredible partnership of Dr MS Swaminathan and Nobel Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug; 

Though he was born in the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, Swaminathan’s motivation to pursue agricultural research came from Bengal. He was greatly impacted by the death and destruction caused by the Bengal famine of 1943 and decided to pursue agriculture research after completing his undergraduation in Zoology in Travancore. Though he got a medical seat and his family wanted him to continue his father’s legacy, he joined the agriculture college in Coimbatore.

In the 1960s, he worked closely with Norman Borlaug, a celebrated American farm scientist and 1970 Nobel Laureate, in developing high-yielding wheat varieties. India’s food imports from the US peaked in 1966 with the country receiving more than 10 million tonnes. India was in what was called ‘ship to mouth’ existence when the government decided to promote high-yield variety of crops, use of fertilizer, and irrigation facilities to increase foodgrain yield. Soon there was quantum jump in wheat production that made the country self-sufficient in food production. India stopped import of wheat from the US under Public Law (PL) 480 in 1971.

Though Green Revolution was criticised by many for promoting excessive use of fertilizer and groundwater, MS Swamination later said those were the effects of Green Revolution becoming ‘greed’ revolution. He also advocated for increasing agricultural productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm through Evergreen Revolution. Talking about establishing the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Swaminathan said that once when Mahatma Gandhi visited his house in Kumbakonam, his mother asked him to give away all the jewels he was wearing to Gandhiji so that it could be spent for the welfare of the poor. 

Also Read: M S Swaminathan, father of India's green revolution, passes away at 98 in Chennai

Icon taking a close look at wheat crop

“That event made me realise anything that was superfluous should be given away,” Swaminathan had said. Swaminathan has served as the chairman of the Government of India’s National Commission on Farmers, President of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Chairman of the High-Level Panel of Experts (of the World Committee on Food Security, Rajya Sabha member, and former director general of Indian Council of Agricultural Research and International Rice Research Institute, among others.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his condolence message, said, “Beyond his revolutionary contributions to agriculture, Dr. Swaminathan was a powerhouse of innovation and a nurturing mentor to many. His unwavering commitment to research and mentorship has left an indelible mark on countless scientists and innovators. I will always cherish my conversations with Dr. Swaminathan. His passion to see India progress was exemplary. His life and work will inspire generations to come. Condolences to his family and admirers. Om Shanti.”

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin hailed his contribution to agriculture and environment. “I am deeply saddened by the demise of MS Swaminathan who tirelessly worked for the past 75 years to end hunger and ensure food security,” Stalin said. Swaminathan played a pivotal role in developing the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Right Act 2001.

He will be remembered forever for his role in the global recognition of the ‘Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere’ and Kerala’s Kuttanad known for ‘traditional cultivation of paddy below sea-level’ as a globally important agricultural heritage site. Former vice-chancellor of Anna University E Balagurusamy urged the Union government to confer Bharat Ratna on Swaminathan.

Life & times of MS Swaminathan

1925: MS Swaminathan born on August 7 in Kumbakonam 

1944: Completes BSc in Agricultural Science at Madras University

1947-49: Joins IARI in New Delhi, focuses on plant genetics

1949-54: Receives UNESCO fellowship, studies potato crop improvement in Cambridge and Wisconsin

1965-70: Leads Green Revolution, boosts wheat yields in India

1979-82: Heads ICAR, establishes weather and crop centres across India

1982: Becomes IRRI DG, promotes women in rice cultivation 

1987: Wins inaugural World Food Prize for food security work

1988: Establishes MS Swaminathan Research Foundation

2002: Elected President of Pugwash Conferences, addresses global peace and hunger

2004: Chairs National Commission on Farmers, advocates for reforms

2007-13: Rajya Sabha member, introduces Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill, chairs HLPE for CFS, leads MEA task force

2013-2023: Focuses on nutrition, rural internet, international institutes, advisory roles, sustainable agriculture, awards, farmers’ rights, public engagement

Awards 1 Padma Shri (1967) 2 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership (1971) 3 Padma Bhushan (1972) 4  Albert Einstein World Award of Science (1986)  5 World Food Prize (1987) 6 International Kalinga Prize for Popularising Science (1987) 7 Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration (1987) 8 Padma Vibhushan (1989) 9 UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal (1999) 10 Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development (2000) 11 World Agriculture Prize (2018)

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