Architect of India’s Green Revolution, Dr MS Swaminathan is no more

BioVoice News offers its rich tributes to one of India's favorite sons of the soil

Pic Credits: MS Swaminathan Foundation.
New Delhi: Dr M S Swaminathan, the father of Indian green revolution….. It was in the year 1992 when I first read this sentence in my General Knowledge book. From childhood to youth, in all age groups, I kept reading about him in newspapers, heard him on radio and watched him on TV. For lakhs of life science students like me, he was a larger-than-life figure with whom we could perhaps never ever meet personally. Shaking hands was of course a dream and far-fetched!!
No doubt years later in 2013 when I got an opportunity to meet him as a reporter, my excitement knew no bounds. I naturally considered myself lucky. My first impression was completely opposite to what I had anticipated when I met Dr Swaminathan for the first time. I thought I would be meeting a typical scientist who would be too much serious and even a bit egoïstic! However, to my surprise, he came across as a fatherly figure whose first words were: “Have you had your lunch yet?”
A soft-spoken gentleman who despite his accolades and achievements remained down to earth, answering emails promptly and never displaying an iota of ego despite the extra-ordinary man he was.
In the next few years, I got one more meeting and a few email exchanges. Despite the brief interactions, the amount of knowledge that transpired was phenomenal.
Scientist par excellence 
Born on 7 August 1925, Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan was an Indian agronomist, agricultural scientist, plant geneticist, administrator, and humanitarian.
As a young scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in the 1950s, Swaminathan learned of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s newly developed Mexican dwarf wheat variety and invited him to India. The two scientists worked jointly to develop wheat varieties that would yield higher levels of grain as well as develop stalk structures strong enough to support the increased biomass.
In 1965, Dr Swaminathan set up thousands of demonstration and test plots in the northern region of India, showing small-scale producers that the new, genetically superior grain could thrive in their own fields. The first year’s harvest tripled previous production levels. Not only did agricultural yields improve, but also scientific advances in agriculture were introduced and used by the producers themselves.
Raising the total crop yield of wheat from 12 million tons to 23 million tons in four crop seasons ended India’s reliance on grain imports. Swaminathan later worked with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to establish agricultural policies and programs that would maintain long-term self-sufficiency across the country.
Swaminathan became chair of numerous prestigious international conferences, including the 1974 United Nations World Food Congress in Rome. As an advocate of scientific collaboration, he influenced renowned organizations and research centers such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, and the International Federation of Agricultural Research Systems for Development – serving as its Director General from 1972 to 1979.
Swaminathan served as Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1979 and 1980. He was in charge of agriculture and rural development in India’s Planning Commission from 1980 to 1982. He became Director General of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1982 – a position first held by Robert Chandler, the 1988 World Food Prize Laureate.
Swaminathan was selected as the first World Food Prize Laureate, receiving the award in 1987. He used the funds he received from The World Food Prize to open a research center, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, in Chennai, India, in 1988. With distinguished contacts on every continent, he initiated dialogue among agricultural scientists, social scientists and field workers to – in his own words – “reach the unreached.”
In 2002, Swaminathan was elected President of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on science and world affairs, which brings global leaders and thinkers together with the goals of reducing the danger of armed conflict and cooperatively solving global problems. He was the first citizen of a developing country to hold this post. Dr. Swaminathan joined the 2002 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Pedro Sanchez as a Hunger Task Force coordinator for the United Nations Millennium Project.
Swaminathan was the chair of the National Commission on Farmers constituted in 2004. In 2007, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam nominated Swaminathan to the Rajya Sabha.
One of the first national awards he received was the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 1961. Following this he was conferred with the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, and Padma Vibhushan awards, as well as the H K Firodia award, the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award, and the Indira Gandhi Prize. As of 2016, he had received 33 national and 32 international awards. In 2004, an agricultural think-tank in India named an annual award after Swaminathan, the eponymously named ‘Dr. M.S. Swaminathan Award for Leadership in Agriculture’.
For his scientific brilliance, Swaminathan received over 50 honorary doctorate degrees from universities around the world and has been a member of over 30 academies worldwide, including the Indian National Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London.
Dr Swaminathan won numerous international awards such as the 1994 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize; the UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal in 1999; the 1999 Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament, and Development; and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award in 2000. TIME Magazine honored him as one of the twenty most influential Asians of the 20th century.
On 26th September 2023, 98-year-old Dr Swaminathan passed away at his home in Chennai after a brief illness.
In the words of former United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez Cuellar, Dr. Swaminathan was a legend who was set to go into the annals of history as a world scientist of a rare distinction. And yes, he did! He will continue to remain in the memories of millions of Indians and inspire our aspiring agriculture scientists.
As the whole bioscience industry mourns his loss, we at BioVoice News offer our rich tributes to one of the India’s favorite sons of the soil.