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Chidambaram Subramaniam—the force behind India’s green revolution who never took credit for it

Chidambaram Subramaniam, former minister of food and agriculture, introduced high-yielding seed varieties and intense fertiliser application, which paved the way for increased production.

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In 1966, agriculture minister Chidambaram Subramaniam ordered the cricket pitch and the rest of the garden in his Delhi house to be dug up. He was going to plant wheat seeds instead. It was no ordinary seed, but a variety developed by an American scientist Norman Borlaug. 

This was the first step towards what would later be called the Green Revolution, which saw India reduce its import of wheat and become a country that could sustain its burgeoning population. 

The seed was a high-yielding, disease-resistant variety with a dwarfing gene that would ensure its stalk wouldn’t tip over with all the seeds. And wherever it was planted, yields soared. It was Indian agronomist M. S. Swaminathan who had tracked down Borlaug to get some of the semi-dwarf wheat breeding material, and Subramaniam, who was agriculture minister at the time, was convinced it would solve India’s food crisis.

It was tough going at first for Subramaniam, or CS as he was popularly called. Nobody trusted this little-known wheat seed—not the nationalists or the farmers or the unions or the political leaders of the time. It was Mexican after all. But through sheer determination and perhaps even the desecration of his much-loved cricket pitch, CS persevered. 

He convinced Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to roll out this seed in India, and in doing so transformed the agricultural sector in India. Today, more than two decades after his death on 7 November 2000 at the age of 90, CS is remembered as the political architect of India’s Green Revolution.  

But he was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1998, decades after the Mexican seed had proved to be a success.

Also read: Hungry India, a nawabi US President, ‘Mexican blood’ — The real story of Green Revolution

The driving force behind Green Revolution

Born on 30 January 1910, in Senguttaipalayam, a small Tamil Nadu village near Pollachi, Chidambaram Subramaniam completed his early schooling there before relocating to Chennai. He enrolled in Presidency College for a BSc in physics and earned a law degree from Madras Law College.

His life took a significant turn when he decided to join MK Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement. He was even imprisoned during the Quit India movement.

In independent India, Subramaniam became a member of the constituent assembly and participated in the drafting of the Constitution. 

He went on to became the minister for education, law and finance in the C. Rajagopalachari and Kumaraswami Kamaraj-led Cabinets in the erstwhile state of Madras. Subramaniam won a Lok Sabha seat in 1962.

Subramaniam was a key member of the Indian National Congress where he held the agricultural portfolio in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s government. He was the finance minister under Indira Gandhi and later the defence minister in the Charan Singh-led government. 

Subramaniam, along with M.S. Swaminathan and civil servant B. Sivaraman, designed the country’s contemporary agricultural development strategy. In his capacity as minister of food and agriculture, Subramaniam introduced high-yielding seed varieties and more intense fertiliser application, which paved the way for increased cereal production and the achievement of the country’s food-grain self-sufficiency.

“The vision and influence of Mr. Subramaniam in bringing about agricultural transformation and in the very important political decisions needed to make the new strategy effective, should never be under-emphasized,” writes Dr. Norman E. Borlaug about his contribution. 

He presented the plan to Parliament with the help of a committed scientist like Swaminathan and Sivaraman providing the necessary administrative support.

Also read: Verghese Kurien, the engineer who ‘dairied’ to dream and ushered in the White Revolution

Seeds of Mexico, fear of diseases

Subramaniam credited the scientists for the Green Revolution. Initially, scientists including Norman Borlaug had objected to the importation of the Mexican seeds on the grounds that they would introduce new diseases to India, recalled Verghese Kurien, the chairman of the National Dairy Development Board then.

They cautioned Subramaniam against importing these seeds, saying they were about to make a significant advancement with an Indian variety. 

Contrary to the claim that rice cultivation did not profit as much from the Green Revolution as wheat did, the practices adopted in the mid-1960s such as the usage of pesticides and fertilisers benefited rice as well.

India, which went to the United States with a “begging bowl” in the 1960s declared unilaterally that it had achieved grain production self-sufficiency on 31 December 1971. 

The Bharat Ratna Chidambaram Subramaniam commemorative stamp was released at the Delhi Tamil Society headed by the then Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram in New Delhi on 29 November 2010. He recalled his moments with CS and spoke of his great sense of humour. 

A commemorative postage stamp issued on the birth centenary of Bharat Ratna Chidambaram Subramaniam in 2010 | Wikimedia Commons

“I would like to recall among you an incident that he once told me,” said P. Chidambaram and continued his story from Chidambaram Subramaniam’s career as a lawyer where once he defended a man accused of murder. 

When the judge pronounced the verdict and set him free everyone looked happy and cheerful except for the accused. CS went to him and said that they have declared you innocent and released you. Yet the accused remained sad and was reluctant to look up. The puzzled judge asked, “Mr. Subramaniam, I have acquitted your client. Why is he standing in the accused box with his head bowed down?” “Your honor, I have convinced you that my client is innocent. But I can’t convince my client that he is innocent.” The court burst into laughter.

According to P. Chidambaram, “Subramaniam was instrumental in freeing India from hunger.”

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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