Norman Borlaug, India’s ‘annadaata’, dies at 95


Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug, the genial scientist-pacifist who died of cancer in Dallas on Saturday, was as much India’s ‘annadaata’ as he was the Father of the Green Revolution.

Around the time Dr Borlaug arrived on the scene in the mid-1960s, the spectre of famine, shortages, and starvation hung over the sub-continent. India was importing huge quantities of food grains from the US – much of it dole – to feed its growing millions in a manner that was famously described as "ship-to-mouth" sustenance.

Enter Norman Borlaug, a strapping, self-made, sun-burnt American from the farmland of Iowa, who had spent more a decade by then in Mexico after hard-earned doctorate in Depression-era US. What he had pulled off in experiments in Mexico was a miracle, that if successfully applied in India, would fill its granaries to overflow – as it eventually did.

By cranking up a wheat strain containing an unusual gene, Borlaug created the so-called ”semi-dwarf” plant variety — a shorter, stubbier, compact stalk that supported an enormous head of grain without falling over from the weight. This curious principle of shrinking the plant to increase the output on the plant from the same acreage resulted in Indian farmers eventually quadrupling their wheat — and later, rice — production.

It heralded the Green Revolution.

A Bharat Ratna should have been his for the taking, but he was not one to ask. He disdained all awards and honours, even making light of the Nobel (Peace) Prize when his Swedish forbears, in 1970, recognized his enormous contribution to mankind (Pakistan, China, and eventually the whole world benefited from his work in Mexico). When his wife ran to the fields to tell him about the recognition, the story goes, he shooed her away saying someone was pulling her leg.
”More than any other person of this age,” the Nobel citation read, ”he helped provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”

In several conversations and interviews with this correspondent in the past decade, the last one in 2008 at the height of the food vs. fuel debate (he was against using food as vehicular fuel), Dr Borlaug recalled his days and association with India with delight. In one conversation in 2006 during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit, he asked for good wishes to be conveyed to his friend. When the message was relayed through the PM’s then media advisor Sanjaya Baru, the Prime Minister gracefully recalled Dr Borlaug’s immense contribution to India’s security in his address to the joint session of US Congress the next day.

A year later, the Bush administration awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honour, the highest US civilian award Borlaug has his critics for sure, most notably ”organic” evangelists such as Dr Vandana Shiva. After initially dismissing them as elitist, he acknowledged they did have a point about the dangers of excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, although he never once gave up his fundamental thesis that the world’s exploding population could not be fed without scientific intervention — for which reason he also supported GM and transgenic crops.

Last week, as this correspondent drove through the lush grain fields of Punjab on a visit to the Golden Temple, it was another occasion to reflect on this titan’s contribution to India. Dr Borlaug was fond of saying he could hear the joyful hum of wheat heads swaying in the fields. Today, they would be playing a soulful dirge to the man who helped us, to a great degree, feed ourselves.

Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN 13 September 2009, 08:04pm IST

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