After a distinguished academic career that saw him get 84 honorary doctorates from some of the greatest universities in the world, Swaminathan passed away on Thursday at his home in the southern city of Chennai due to an age-related ailment.
The agriculturalist and plant geneticist played a key role in introducing industrial farming to India in the late 1960s and early 1970s, helping to reduce widespread famine and make the nation food self-sufficient.
The so-called “Green Revolution” in India helped low-income farmers by transforming the northern states of Punjab and Haryana into a breadbasket for the production of wheat and rice.
The initiative, now dubbed a transformational era in Indian agriculture, introduced high-yielding cereal varieties and expanded the use of irrigation and fertilisers. Grain production increased exponentially at a time when India was beset with widespread starvation.
His work breeding wheat and rice strains with improved yields, and training farmers to cultivate them, helped transform India from a starving nation into a food exporter.
“At a very critical period in our nation’s history, his groundbreaking work in agriculture transformed the lives of millions and ensured food security for our nation,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
“His passion to see India progress was exemplary.”
After receiving his genetics PhD from Cambridge University in 1952, Swaminathan decided to return to post-independence India and “serve the nation” rather than accept a teaching offer there.
The Bengal famine of 1943, which occurred towards the end of British colonial authority and caused up to 3.8 million deaths from hunger, was still vivid in people’s minds.
He started working with American agronomic Norman Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his own contributions to enhancing the global food supply.
In 1966, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assumed office, Swaminathan was granted full authority to carry out a fresh agricultural programme.
India’s economy was at the time hindered by persistent food shortages, which made it dependent on foreign aid; but, by the early 1970s, the new techniques had made it self-sufficient.
“Crisis serves as the seed for creation. In the 1960s, we encountered a crisis, and we overcame it, he told the AFP news agency in 2008.
Along with a lengthy list of other honours, Swaminathan received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1971, which is regarded as Asia’s Nobel Prize.
Alongside freedom hero Mahatma Gandhi and the revolutionary poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore, Swaminathan was recognised by Time magazine as one of the 20 most significant Asians of the 20th century for his contributions.
Swaminathan worked as a top planner at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research between 1972 and 1979. He also held administrative posts at a number of Indian agricultural research organisations. In 1967, he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest distinctions given by the Indian government.
Swaminathan also briefly served as a legislator in India’s upper house of the parliament. He was survived by his three daughters following the death of his wife last year, media reports said