Swaminathan courted the limelight and sought to dispel doubts about science and its multifaceted applications in farming
For Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, agricultural scientist par excellence, “sustainable development” was the catchphrase that meant growth and progress were reliable and dependable. He insisted that development must be firmly rooted in the principles of ecology, social and gender equity, employment generation and economic potential. In farming, it was producing high yields in perpetuity without associated social or ecological harm.
It was this out-of-the-box thinking that enabled him to effectively take on the food shortage that India faced since the 1940s and to go on to win the first World Food Prize in 1987. More accolades and recognitions came his way in the form of over two dozen international awards, close to 30 national awards, all official honours starting with the Padma Shri to Padma Vibushan and honorary degrees from 43 universities, including the world’s oldest in Bologna in Italy.
But all those laurels sat lightly on his shoulders as Swaminathan moved around as a people’s scientist. Unlike many men and women of science who confine themselves to their own exclusive knowledge zones, leading a life in isolation and obscurity, Swaminathan was a scientist the hoi polloi knew. He could interact with ordinary farmers tilling the field and even learn a trick or two from them. Even as an academically qualified scientist, he looked to the fields and its tillers for scientific enlightenment.
Not one to lock himself in a laboratory and be an enigma to the real beneficiaries of his painstaking research, Swaminathan courted the limelight and sought to dispel doubts about science and its multifaceted applications in farming and related areas to anyone interested in knowing. Similarly, he acknowledged the strength of traditional farming skills and knowledge in making scientific progress in a world whose population continues to grow by the day, raising its demand for food and also wrecking the planet.
At a time when traditionalists questioned the merits of technology-driven progress, Swaminathan, who was a scientist with whom the common man could relate, proved that science and tradition have to travel together to achieve a hunger-free world.