Who is M.S. Swaminathan?

A brief interview with the Tällberg Foundation Global Leader and scientist behind India’s Green Revolution

Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, Founder and Chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India. Dr. Swaminathan is the scientific leader of the Green Revolution in India and, more recently, has been instrumental in shifting attention from food security as measured by caloric intake to a concept incorporating access to balanced diet and clean water. He also played an important role in the successful effort to make access to food a legal right in India — a model for the rest of the world. The Foundation aims to accelerate use of modern science for agricultural and rural development, and for the development and dissemination of technology to improve lives and livelihoods of tribal and rural communities.

Dr. Swaminathan is part of the 2015 class of Tällberg Foundation Global Leaders, along with Jamila Afghani, Antonella Battaglini, Jason Glaser, and Martín von Hildebrand.

When you won the World Food Prize in 1987, you had already completed the work of many lifetimes. Where do you find the continued inspiration and drive? How do you manage not to be overwhelmed?

First of all, where there is a challenge which is sufficiently manageable in the sense that there is a solution to it…Not a hopeless kind of challenge, there are challenges which you can’t really face easily. But, hunger is one which is manmade, we all know that. It is for a long time persisting, and there are new approaches to deal with this issue.

Where there is a challenge there has to be a response. My own motivation has come from the fact that all the indicators in the world, the hunger index or whatever index you say, shows a high prevalence of malnutrition. Particularly, childhood malnutrition — low birthweight babies which will then be denied an opportunity for a normal life later with their cognitive abilities affected.

Where the challenge is great, the response comes, I think, automatically. I have been associated with organizations…All the associations I have had have been with organizations which have similar goals, like your own. You want to live in harmony with nature and with each other. That is what I get from Tallberg Foundation’s own goal: how do you promote harmony in the world?

In a world where there is more and more — you know, there is growing violence in the human heart. Every day you find a fight here, a fight there. Under those conditions, not long ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca said, where hunger rules, peace cannot prevail. Therefore the first element in the human life is adequate nutrition, and that has been my goal.

Research and science can give you the analysis, but enacting change is different. How do you keep people engaged with continued change?

Research gives you what needs to be done, what a solution is, what kind of problem. But later on when you go into a translational phase, what we call “translational research”, it becomes more and more important. If you do just the research without a backup of translational research, which can convert findings into implementable methodologies, then you don’t make any progress. These two must go together. The applied research and the translational research go hand in hand. What we call Lab-to-Land, Land-to-Lab and so on.

It’s a symphony — a symphony approach. In symphony, you’ve got — of course the conductor is important — but there are so many others who can make a jarring note and it will not happen. So who are the members of the symphony, whether malnutrition or the hunger elimination symphony? Who are all the key players? And how to get them involved? This is what led us to progress in India. We were in very bad shape for agriculture before our Independence. The great Bengal famine, and so on. But we could make progress because all of the elements were brought together.

What does leadership come from?

Leadership is something which other people have to recognize. You cannot demand that I am a leader. Political leaders demand, but otherwise in science and so on, other people have to recognize that you are a leader in this field, that you know what you’re talking about.

Whatever I have been able to achieve, I could not have achieved, but for three things:

One is, a band of colleagues who have the same commitment — science and society, science for society. Not science for science alone. It is important to have science for it’s own sake, but when you link science and society then there are different dimensions.

So, one area is this culture of colleagues, the other area is understanding the people with which you work. If you are working with a tribal community, what are their customs? You respect them as human beings — you value them. They must feel that you don’t have contempt or anything of that kind.

Thirdly, you must have institutional support. Whatever we may do — if I had not studied at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and worked there, I could not have achieved many things but for that institutional support. [That is true] wherever you are, I have know many institutions in Sweden for a very long time, and you find that that institutional support has been a very vital one for the success of the scientists.

So you have your own colleagues, a team of people with shared values, you understand and respect your clients, and thirdly institutional support which will help you optimize your time, maximize your effort, and so on.

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