Prabha Chandran profiles an authentic Indian legend, MS Swaminathan, the man who engineered the Green Revolution, and laid the foundation of a national self-sufficiency in food production, back in the 1960s.

 

It’s a unique botanical garden but you’d never guess it looking at the lawns of lush Korean grass fringed with exotic palms. Their beauty is secondary to their efficiency in conserving and recharging ground water levels, explains the scientist. In one corner of the garden is a huge aquaculture tank in which he breeds ornamental fish, changing the lives of hundreds of unskilled villagers. At the entrance is an innocuous looking greenhouse to which he now leads you. There, blooming in potted rows of varying sizes and hues, is his life’s work—the genetically modified strains of rice, corn and wheat that he believes will usher in Asia’s second green revolution. Soon.

The scientist, who bio-engineered the first big breakthrough in food production, the Green Revolution of 1968, calls his next effort the Ever Green Revolution. These crops, he says, will be ecologically sustainable even in areas where cultivation is impossible today, like swamps and coastal areas submerged by global warming.

As you mull over the exciting implications of his work, he leads you to another building where something equally remarkable is happening in a darkened vault with freezing temperatures. You are shivering as you walk past rack upon rack of samples of India’s vanishing plant life. There are some 1,500 ‘land races’ or varieties of food crops preserved in this cryogenic gene bank that one day may hold the seeds of an extinct bio-diversity. The gene bank also preserves important species that may be required for cross breeding new varieties of food grains one day that will respond to climatic changes of the future. Even as you struggle to absorb the enormity of the work being done here, the scientist takes you upstairs to a communication lab where two researchers from Harvard are watching a group of village women disseminating vital price and weather information from the internet in Tamil to fishermen in Pondicherry.

Welcome to the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai, where “everything we do must fulfil three criteria,” says the scientist, “it must be pro women, pro poor and pro nature—otherwise we don’t do it.”

The scientist is none other than Padmashri Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, 77, better known as the Father of the Green Revolution. For 50 years now, MS, as he is fondly called, has devoted his scientific genius to finding ways to empower India’s poorest Dalit women and landless labourers. “Scientists must think about meeting basic human needs,” he says and if he has one regret today, it is that “we have failed to make a greater impact on the lives of the poor.” For if Gandhi was the visionary behind political Independence then MS was the man who gave us economic independence by ensuring India’s food security, arguably the second most important event in free India’s history. No wonder Time magazine honoured them as two of the three most influential Indians of the 20th century, along with Rabindranath Tagore. We enter his Spartan office and it’s hard to miss the rows of international awards and honorary doctorates—including the Ramon Magsaysay and the First World Food Prize—for changing this continent, from a  famine-stalked the to one with bursting granaries. Those who were born after 1967, the year in which the first harvest of the Green Revolution yielded three times more food grain, will never know the horror of 1947 when three million Indians died in the Bengal famine or the Bihar famine of 1966 or the gruesome human harvest of 30 million starved Chinese in the four years between 1958 and 1962 in China. Today, Asia feeds a third of the world’s population and India stocks 60 million tons of surplus grain—yet people starve for economic and other reasons.

“We could give them the seeds but we could not put food in their mouth or money in their pockets,” says MS regretfully, “the only way to do that is to change them from unskilled to skilled workers and to increase on and off farm productivity.” Over the past decades he has done exactly that, dotting the coast from Kerala to West Bengal with 250 showcase ‘bio-villages’ where Dalit women and those without land or livestock are being taught new skills for survival. Indeed, he has turned them into barefoot scientists. “We have trained women to make bio-pesticides and bio-fertilisers, and to understand how crop rotation and scientific land and water management can make for precision farming.” Some 250,000 families have benefited from the Foundation’s work so far.

I prefer to share knowledge with women. If you do something for a woman the whole family benefits but if you do something for a man, the reverse is not true.

“Women cultivate flowers and mushrooms,” says MS, “they have been taught artificial breeding. In Nammakal, the egg capital of India, we have set up community fodder bags using high protein strains of maize, soya and millet. This has not only increased farmers’ profitability but also created jobs for landless workers. But all this is only a demonstration, it cannot have mass impact unless it is supported by government policy.”

To be fair, MS has done his share of lobbying at the policy level. His championship of The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act has already become law. He is now lobbying for the ‘Intellectual Property Rights of Tribal Women’ a bill that is especially dear to his heart as it seeks to protect “indigenous knowledge of which we have created a vast data bank over the years.”

This traditional wisdom—be it grandmother’s remedies or conservation techniques—surfaces ubiquitously in all his schemes. For instance, “we have a green kit containing 20 medicinal plants which we grow wherever there is land to provide antidotes to common colds, headaches and other ailments.” Ask him why he has made women the main beneficiaries of his work and he says, “If you travel through the rural areas you will see women and children are the worst affected by poverty. They work 18-20 hours a day and are emaciated by the time they are 25 by multiple births and hard labour. It’s very sad. I prefer to share knowledge with women. If you do something for a woman the whole family benefits but if you do something for a man, the reverse is not true. This is also borne out by data from the Maharashtra Employment Scheme. Gender equality is particularly important given the feminization of agriculture, and poverty.”

Sometimes the solutions are amazingly simple. “In Chidambaram, I came across a heart-rending sight of emaciated women and I asked what we could do in a place where crops could not grow,” recalls MS. “We searched and found huge sewer pipes from an abandoned project. We converted them into tanks for breeding ornamental fish, which we got from a breeder in Himachal and from the Tamil Nadu Fisheries College. The villagers loved it because it was something they could do with very little effort. Now, they are exporting fish to Singapore. There’s a solution to every problem.”

But it takes genuine concern and some ingenuity to find it. Says a colleague, Professor P C Kesavan, “MS has the greatest concern for humanity coupled with brilliance in applying scientific know-how to society. He is an original thinker whose sole concern is taking technology to the unreachable poor who have been bypassed by all kinds of advances for the last five decades.”

Not surprisingly, Gandhiji had a lot to do with his altruism. “My father was a freedom fighter and Gandhiji visited our house a couple of times. I was deeply impressed by the swadeshi movement and the Mahatma.” Imbibing his ideals from a father who fought to keep temples open to Harijans and who mobilised villagers to fight malaria, MS also faced personal tragedy at the tender age of 11 when his father passed away. It deepened his empathy for the suffering of others and his life has been spent in alleviating their hardship.

Ask Pannerselvan, a fisherman in Veerampatinam who has lost several colleagues over the years to the treacherous storms and currents in the Bay of Bengal. Not any more. Thanks to an IT experiment launched by MSSRF, he now knows not just when to expect a storm but also fish and crop prices, advice on farming, and access to an online vet and a doctor. “People discouraged us when we started our internet experiment in 1992. They said there was no electricity to run computers—so we put up solar panels. They said there were no phones—so we asked Motorola to give us wireless connectivity,” recalls MS. “We created a hub for downloading internet information which is linked to radiating centres in villages and operated locally, because we wanted people to have a sense of ownership. Women volunteers operate the computers and a wonderful thing has happened: their status and self-esteem has risen tremendously because men must now come to them for vital information on markets and weather conditions. So, the gender divide can be bridged by the digital divide.”

Villagers now consult doctors at the Postgraduate Medical Institute in Pondicherry, they email a vet, find the best prices and have increased their earnings by cutting out middle men. They can also apply for loans and grants by accessing a database maintained by the MSSRF of 200 government schemes for those below the poverty line based on age, gender and caste. Some 12 such ‘knowledge centres’ are being run in a life-transforming experiment by the MSSRF that has attracted eminent scientists from around the world including three visits by the President of the US National Academy of Sciences, Dr Bruce Alberts.

Surely all this must bring some satisfaction but if he was to look back on a single achievement he would like to be remembered for, what would it be, I ask. “Personally, it was creating self-sufficiency in agriculture that has given me the greatest satisfaction,” says MS. “No one believed we could do it and experts like Paul Ehrlich were predicting mass scale famine deaths in India in the 70s. Today, the Green Revolution is in trouble even in Punjab where rising salinity, soil degradation and falling water tables have led to unsustainable growth. So, we have to move to the next stage, the Ever Green Revolution which will ensure higher productivity in perpetuity.” The solution was to create new, salt-tolerant, strains of rice, wheat and pulses. “We took the Mangrove tree which grows in swamps as our donor,” explains MS, “and we mapped the genome to isolate the gene for salt tolerance. We transferred this gene to rice, mustard, pulses and it is growing beautifully in pots but we have not introduced it to fields yet.”

The health-scare surrounding toxic bio-genetically engineered foods in the UK last year does not impress him. “The Royal Society carried out a thorough investigation and found there was no basis for the scare,” he says. “In life there are always genetic combinations, take the six billion humans, we’re all genetically recombinant except for identical twins.”

True, but nature’s role being played selectively by man to create a species with certain desirable traits is scary. It’s playing God. He scoffs at such ethical dilemmas as applied to agriculture. “If you can grow five tons of rice instead of one, why shouldn’t you? Every second child born in this country is less than 2.5 kg in weight. Nearly 48% per cent of women and children are under normal weight in this country. We have the most austere poverty line in the world,” says the man who advised the UN and the Indian government on minimal calorie intake. “It is 2,400 in rural areas and 2,100 in urban areas but man does not live by calories alone. He needs a balanced diet, clothing, shelter, education and health care.”

“Everything we do must fulfil three criteria,” says the scientist, “it must be pro women, pro poor and pro nature – otherwise we don’t do it.”

Ask him whether he worries that his life’s work may boomerang badly with the introduction of some giant killer weed that could swamp the planet and he dismisses the very idea. “Giant killer weeds have come by conventional methods. They are called Invasive Alien Species, like the ones that came from Mexico. Similarly, a species from India may become a powerful weed in Mexico. So weeds that come from other parts of the world already exist. Some that move across India to the North East acquire a tremendous capacity to grow even in drought conditions.”

You can already see his mind churning at the food possibility in such drought resistance. On a more serious note, though, he has three concerns about genetically modified foods: “The first is environmental safety; second, human safety as in food allergens and third, monopolistic control. A company called Monsanto has raised a lot of fear about who controls food technology. So, the more public and charitable institutes like ours master technology, the more difficult it will be for private companies to control it.”

Amazing, but one of the world’s greatest scientists has no interest in patenting work that would have made him a billionaire several times over. Instead, he works quietly in his Chennai institute, thinking up ways to enrich the poorest Indian with the fruit of his knowledge. “I was raised in a climate where intellectual property was alien to our culture. Whatever you knew, you imparted to your students. Materialism is the most unfortunate part of today’s world. Even the UNDP Human Development Report measures technological progress by the number of patents a country has, which is very wrong. We have done work, which has benefited millions of farmers and we have done it free. We have no patents but does that mean we have no technology?” We have the best scientists but, agrees MS, they are not flourishing in India “because bureaucrats are more interested in promoting themselves for Padma Shris!”

As he walks you out, past the ever green house of tomorrow you can’t help but wonder what combination of genes produced this unique individual who’s humanism is as deep as his scientific brilliance. At the risk of sounding facetious, you wish we could clone a dozen homo superiori like Swaminathan.

 

This article was first published in the June 2002 issue

Image courtesy: Outlook