Tamil Nadu: In Focus

The architects of Green Revolution from T.N.

C. Subramaniam with Union Agriculture Minister Chaturanan Mishra and M.S. Swaminathan in Madras on July 08, 1997. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

It was around 10 p.m. on June 9, 1964, that C. Subramaniam, a Congress veteran from Tamil Nadu, popularly known as CS, received a call from Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had just taken over as the Prime Minister following the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in late May. He wanted Subramaniam, who held the plum portfolios of Steel, Mines and Heavy Engineering in the Nehru Cabinet, to look after the “less glamorous” subjects of Agriculture and Food.

As recounted in the second volume of his memoirs, Hand of Destiny, Subramaniam was “a little taken aback” as he considered himself a successful Steel Minister.

But the problem Shastri faced was that he could find no one else in his Cabinet willing to accept Agriculture, which was even regarded as the “political graveyard”. Events that followed this development justified Shastri’s selection and proved how eminently qualified Subramaniam was in handling the two crucial subjects, especially at a time when the country went through a spell of acute food shortage.

The late 1950s and early 1960s marked the period when agriculture scientists, just as policy- makers, were seriously engaged in efforts to develop high-yielding crop varieties. The reason was not far to seek. India was meeting the bulk of its grain requirements through imports, especially from the U.S. under the Public Law(PL)-480 agreements since 1954.

The 29-year-old M.S. Swaminathan, also from Tamil Nadu, who had a postgraduate degree in cytogenetics and Ph.D. from Cambridge, joined the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, as assistant cytogeneticist in October 1954, according to M.S. Swaminathan: Scientist/Humanist/Conservationist. In 1959, he approached American agricultural scientist-plant pathologist Norman Borlaug to get some of his semi-dwarf wheat breeding material.

In March 1963, Borlaug visited different parts of north India, along with Dr Swaminathan, before supplying the suitable material. After successful trials with regard to semi-dwarf wheats of Mexican origin, Dr. Swaminathan and other scientists were convinced the country had the ability to achieve a breakthrough in wheat production. It was at this juncture that Subramaniam teamed up with Dr. Swaminathan and both went on to have an admirable policy maker-technocrat relationship. There was one more Tamilian who joined the duo — B. Sivaraman, who, as the Agriculture Secretary, provided critical support to all the new initiatives in agriculture.

While steps were on to replicate the trials on a wider scale, the proponents of the new approach had to face several hurdles, political and otherwise. Within the Cabinet, there were conflicts of view. Among the issues that disturbed many were the suitability of the new technology in agricultural production in Indian conditions, the desirability of fertilizer-intensive farming and the consequent dependence on imports of fertilizers and chemicals from the U.S., and the sustainability of the scheme of minimum support price.

Citing the tight situation in foreign exchange reserves, the then Finance Minister, T.T. Krishnamachari, had opposed importing tonnes of high-yielding varieties of grain. A section of scientists even contended that the introduction of the Mexican seeds might bring in new diseases. But, in due course, all hurdles were overcome. Of course, the CS-Swaminathan team received enormous support from Shastri initially and his successor Indira Gandhi.

The diplomatic skills of CS also helped when he had tough negotiations with representatives of the U.S., including the then President, L.B. Johnson, during the back-to-back drought in the mid-1960s that led to the “ship-to-mouth” situation in the availability of foodgrains. Dr Swaminathan’s stint, as the director of the IARI, which commenced in July 1966, saw the growth of the institute in a huge way, contributing to the enhanced agricultural production. The institute went on to have 23 divisions against the original strength of six. Directorates in wheat, pulses, nuclear research in agriculture, and water technology came up.

Dr Swaminathan occupied other positions, including the Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

Though CS ceased to be the Food and Agriculture Minister after his defeat in the 1967 Lok Sabha election, the seeds sown by him and his team helped India achieve a quantum jump in wheat production by 1968. In 1998, CS was given the country’s highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna.

While a section of experts holds that the Green Revolution did not yield as much success in rice production as it did in wheat, the benefits of the initiatives of the mid-1960s, such as the use of chemicals and fertilisers, had covered rice too.

The country, which had approached the U.S. literally with a “begging bowl” in the 1960s, declared unilaterally the termination of the PL-480 arrangement on December 31, 1971, on the ground that it had become self-sufficient in grain production. During 2021-22, it produced a record 127.93 million tonnes of rice and 111.32 million tonnes of wheat during 2021-22, according to the data released by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare last month.

There are areas in agricultural production where the country is still lagging. For example, pulses and edible oil continue to be imported. A vibrant collaboration for positive outcomes is the need of the hour. The country is only to follow the model shown by CS and Dr. Swaminathan, and improve upon it.


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