‘Professor M.S. Swaminathan wanted women, farmers to benefit from his research, initiatives’

Villagers, scientists say the ‘Professor’ transformed and touched the lives of many with his research; paying rich tributes, they say he was pro-poor, pro-women, and pro-nature

September 28, 2023 10:11 pm | Updated October 09, 2023 04:10 pm IST - CHENNAI

Key institution: The M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Taramani, Chennai.

Key institution: The M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Taramani, Chennai. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives


“Putting people first - A key principle for MSS is not to see people instrumentally, but as human beings, with strengths and weaknesses, each having something to contribute to the collective good.” - From the book M.S. Swaminathan: In Conversation with Nitya Rao.  

On the day that their ‘Professor’ passed away, the six lakh families of 4,000 villages in 14 districts mourned the loss of a colossus, who changed their lives with his pro-poor, pro-women, pro-nature approach. He had passed scientific know-how to the farmer, the fisherman, and even the artisan.  

For D. Usharani of Embalam, the ‘Professor’ was someone who took her “from being a coolie to the person who spoke in Switzerland”. “I was an ordinary woman who would have just existed as a coolie. Now I have made a name in my village. I would have remained a silent housewife letting my husband bring the money. But he taught me to operate computers. He taught us women to cultivate crops, use the power-tiller, and teach others to farm too. There are more women farmers than men on the fields these days. He took me abroad and I got to speak in Switzerland.”

From a small beginning in 1987, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) has made an impact in various fields, carrying out research and development initiatives related to coastal systems, biodiversity, biotechnology, ecotechnology, agriculture, nutrition, and health. N. Parasuraman, principal scientist at MSSRF, recalls the very first project on ‘coastal systems research’ at Vettaikaraniruppu in Nagapattinam district where sustainable agriculture was introduced and the people grew groundnuts under coconut palms and moringa trees.

“He wanted farmers and fishermen and women to benefit from the research. He wanted their incomes to increase, ensure their children studied, and their lives improved.” Dr. Parasuraman’s doctorate was on the Professor - about the impact he had on people. 

V. Pakirichi, a woman from a Dalit community, recalls how there was a time when others in the village wouldn’t enter the temple she entered. “But he was there for me. He refused to enter if I did not. He taught us self-respect, ensured my children were educated. We didn’t know anything about saving money. Now all of us have bank accounts. Silently, he has brought about a revolution in our village. He told us it was important to learn a skill and work for our money. Today, I work in Mangalam village [in Kancheepuram district], and have a small vegetable patch,” said the 46-year-old who is also a climate warrior. 

G.N. Hariharan, executive director, MSSRF, whose association with the Professor started as soon as he completed his doctorate, recalls, “He sat with me at my lab looking at fungal spores through the microscope. You should have seen the expression on his face, such child-like enthusiasm. From there to shaping my enire career, he has been with me. I am going to miss him.”  

After the tsunami of 2004, Dr. Swaminathan was among the first to write about the need for rehabilitation. “He spoke about ecological rehabilitation and said mangroves can be used as bio-shields, a method followed all over the world till today. He spoke about economic rehabilitation, and said ‘don’t give fish to fishermen, teach them how to fish’. He spoke about psychological rehabilitation, especially of women and children. He was the first to talk about transferring genes from mangroves to paddy to make them saltwater-resistant. He was the first to talk about woman farmer-empowerment in Parliament,” Dr. Hariharan recalled.  

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