‘Bharat Ratna’ to Dr M S Swaminathan Recognising the spirit of the Indian Scientific Community

Biju Dharmapalan
Policymakers and the public very often neglect the hard work of scientists. The Bharat of today is the contribution of our great scientists who toiled their lives to uplift a country that was pictured as a land of snake charmers to a country that has gained global acceptance as a leader in science and technology. Scientists from every field of science have equally played a significant role in this. The amenities that we enjoy today, which are at par with any developed nation, result from their hard work and perseverance. Not to forget the visionary policy makers who identified the appropriate people to lead the scientific team. In the pre-independent and early times of the post-independent era, one major issue that affected our country was the shortage of food grains. This was mainly due to colonial rulers’ faulty policy decisions and our crops’ low productivity. During our war with Pakistan in 1965, the then Prime Lal Bahadur Shastri requested countrymen to “Sacrifice one meal at least a week!”. People of the present generation cannot image such a severe situation. Today, we have ample or even surplus food production and are exporting our produce to the needy. Our journey towards achieving this stature is mainly due to the research in agricultural science led by scientists like Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan,popularly known as M.S.Swaminathan.
Born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India, on 7 August 1925 to M.K. Sambasivan, a surgeon, and Parvati Thangammal in Kumbakonam in the then Madras Presidency, Swaminathan received a BSc in Zoology from the Maharaja’s College in Trivandrum. (now the University College Trivandrum) in Kerala, India, in 1944. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for the Quit India movement and seeing the plight of farmers in the country, Swaminathan shifted his focus to Agriculture , instead of medicine. He completed his BSc in agriculture from the University of Madras in Chennai, India 1947. In 1949 Swaminathan joined the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi to focus on plant genetics and breeding. He further specialised in cytogenetics to help crop improvement, gaining a post-graduate degree in it.After brief fellowships in New Delhi and Wageningen, Netherlands, he received a PhD from the School of Agriculture at the University of Cambridge in 1952. Swaminathan studied cytogenetics and potato breeding at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a year. He then returned to India and joined the indica-japonica rice hybridisation program at the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack.
In 1950, Swaminathan initiated efforts towards achieving his vision of food security by standardising techniques enabling the breeding of hybrid plants that were previously infertile, thus laying the groundwork for sustainable crops. Shortly thereafter, he successfully developed a potato hybrid incorporating foreign genes that provided resistance to frost. Following this achievement, he spearheaded initiatives aimed at enhancing the yields of delicate indica rice varieties through crossbreeding with more resilient japonica varieties.
In 1958, Swaminathan provided insights into inducing mutations in wheat and rice, accelerating the development of desired traits. This research facilitated a deeper understanding of the effects of food irradiation, a technique utilising ionising radiation to enhance food safety while maintaining yield integrity. Swaminathan also elucidated the genetic relationships among wheat species. In 1963, he launched a breeding program integrating dwarfing genes into wheat, resulting in sturdier, higher-yielding plants. Subsequently, he spearheaded a rice breeding effort, developing basmati strains with improved resilience to heavy grains. The introduction of the hybrid rice Pusa Basmati 1121, revolutionised basmati rice production, ensuring both high yield and quality, thereby advancing food security and benefiting farmers.
Swaminathan worked with Union Agriculture Ministers such as C Subramaniam and Jagjivan Ram in the 1960s and 70s to drive the success of the ‘Green Revolution.’ This initiative significantly boosted the productivity of wheat and rice through the adoption of chemical-biological technology. Beyond achieving higher yields, Dr. Swaminathan’s efforts alongside farmers propelled India into a golden era of agricultural technology, transforming the nation from a ‘begging bowl’ to the ‘bread basket of the world’.
For developing and spearheading the introduction of high-yielding wheat and rice varieties into India, he was awarded the first World Food Prize in 1987. The earnings from this prize were utilised to set up the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. The Foundation aims to accelerate the use of modern science and technology for agricultural and rural development to improve the lives and livelihoods of communities.Swaminathan’s influence extended beyond India; he made significant contributions to global agricultural and environmental endeavours, earning recognition as one of Time magazine’s 20 most influential Asians of the 20th century.
Swaminathan’s creative approach extended into the digital era. In 1997, he established the first computer-aided rural knowledge centers, which promoted agricultural innovation and knowledge dissemination. He understood that digital technology had the power to advance rural prosperity. He even proposed using modern breeding technologies like genetic engineering in a balanced manner to improve future food security.
His work catalysed India’s agricultural renaissance. Swaminathan worked tirelessly to revolutionise agriculture and ensure food security and sustainable resource management. He aimed to improve crop yields, promote ecological and economic sustainability, and empower small farmers while integrating cutting-edge technology and promoting gender equality in agriculture. Swaminathan’s relentless research and advocacy enabled an enduring green revolution and food security that we enjoy today. By recognising the great scientist who dedicated his whole life to the welfare of farmers and the nation, with the highest civilian award ‘Bharat Ratna’, the Government not only acknowledges his contributions but also raises awareness of the critical role that our scientific community plays in shaping the future of humanity and the planet.
( The author is an adjunct faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore)