Updated: Dec 19, 2021
They say geniuses aren't born; they're made. One such genius our country produced is Dr. Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan. A man widely regarded as the architect of the Indian Green Revolution, he has been felicitated all around the world. Tales of his work alongside Dr. Borlaug, the introduction of high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice in India, how he went about improving the current agricultural practices as the director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, have been retold many times. What remains overshadowed is, however, the lessons he learnt as a child, his early life and struggles, that imbibed in him certain attributes that directed him how to go about his life to become the man many look up to.
Born to nationalist parents, MSS was introduced to working for the welfare of the deprived when his mother explained to him the need to offer his gold chain and earrings to Gandhiji, who used to frequent his house in Kumbakonam. Since then, Dr Swaminathan usually donated most of his awards, for the betterment of the downtrodden. Sometimes this upliftment, however, came at a price. His father, being involved with Gandhiji, had a lot of Dalit visitors. The proximity with those of lower castes compelled the priests to stay away from the household. The death of his grandmother, too, wasn't enough to persuade the priests to perform the ceremonies involved. His father had to go to Varanasi for the last rites.
All these incidents built a character who was secular, actively fought against injustice and served those who lacked their voice in society.
As Swaminathan grew up, everyone realised he was a bright student. He qualified for the IPS besides being offered a fellowship to the Agricultural University at Wageningen in Holland. Despite his uncle worrying about his future and paltry pay in research, MSS joined the latter and chose a boat called the 'Jal Azad' due to its patriotic name and went to Holland.
He found Holland an exciting place with gracious people and stayed there for a year before moving to Cambridge for Ph.D. He finished his doctorate in two years and moved to Wisconsin on invitation, after his published paper caught the attention of two eminent professors. Despite being offered the position of Assistant Professor with a good salary, he chose to return to homeland with no employment in hand.
As days went by, the doctor got an opportunity to join the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and began his married life with a meagre salary of Rs 450 per month minus pension deductions. His wife was studying and couldn't contribute anything for the daily expenses. The rent was Rs 130 per month. His simple lifestyle made sure they managed comfortably in a limited amount. As the pay rose to Rs 2500 per month, so did the family expenses. The family of two grew to a family of five. Yet they never felt dissatisfied. He made it a priority to educate his children properly, give them the opportunity he had received, to pursue his dreams.
His daughter, Nitya Rao, recounts how her father played a fantastic role in their upbringing. While her mother was strict, he made sure to be lenient and spoil them with gifts and presents. Despite his hectic schedule, he made time for their Sunday' oil baths', bedtime stories and full day picnics. When faced with conflicts and challenges, he would remain calm and gentle and deal with the issue with ease. He made sure to show his three daughters the best of both worlds, with visits to the IARI labs and the farmers' fields, keen on showcasing to them the nature and importance of his work. He encouraged their interests and gave them the freedom to experiment with their lives.
A significant reason as to why he supported his daughters are rooted in his childhood. Living in a joint family, he admired the women selflessly sacrificing their personal life for their families. However, it was also the cause of grief because they couldn't make much of their lives. This led him to become the champion of women's rights. An incident which highlights his contribution to the same was when he pitched the theme for the Annual International Rice Conference as 'Women and Rice farming'. The opposition and ill-informed comments didn't deter him from enlightening them about women's contributions in rice farming and thus 'The Asian Network of Women and Rice Farming' was formed funded by the Ford Foundation. His work and desire to uplift lives took him to as far as North Korea. He interacted with women paddy farmers who were struggling with the lack of facilities. In an attempt to educate them more about farming, he managed to bring 20 of them for a workshop in India and got them some implements as gifts. Such was his magnanimity.
Over the years, MSS faced several challenges and hardships, but he had a knack for identifying a problem and then analysing it for causes and solutions through critical and creative thinking. This practice of his too, originates from his childhood.
Kumbakonam in 1930s was rampant with filaria. His father stood for the municipal elections, won and offered people treatment for free or at moderate costs. Stereotypes made people believe the disease was god-given when MSS's teacher informed them how mosquitoes caused it. They then went around covering the breeding grounds or pouring crude oil emulsion in them to solve the filaria problem, which proved to be a success.
He learnt how education and a solution-oriented approach always reaps the rewards.
These lessons were what he utilised when working alongside the famed Dr Norman Borlaug and later practising the same in our country, going to great lengths to inform, help and solve the farmers' plight. He is still active in his work and serving the country at the ripe age of 94 years.
Long live the noble soul!