The mood is sombre at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. Its iconic founder and celebrated agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan passed away on September 28 at the age of 98. Many dignitaries and scores of people whose lives he touched are streaming into the large hall, where his body lies, with garlands to pay homage. The TN Chief Minister MK Stalin is expected to arrive soon as well.

It’s very hard to walk in the footsteps of someone like MS Swaminathan, says Soumya Swaminathan  It’s very hard to walk in the footsteps of someone like MS Swaminathan, says Soumya Swaminathan  

Soumya Swaminathan, his eldest daughter and chairperson of the MSSRF, and who was most recently WHO’s Chief Scientist, took a few minutes to share memories of her father.


Everyone knows his role in the Green Revolution.. what would you say were his other seminal achievements?

He was an institution builder; (look at) the kind of institutions he has created across disciplines, not just in agriculture, though he was responsible for the entire agriculture research systems. He was responsible for setting up the Krishi Vigyan Kendras, setting up of the national agricultural sciences group, all of that. But if you look at his contributions in the Planning Commission; he was the Vice Chairman of the Sixth Planning Commission and for the first time gender was included as a first as a full chapter. His focus was always on the marginalised, on the poor, those who were kept out of planning and policy. He also mentored and nurtured several generations of scientists, particularly young people; the kind of time he would give them! Many of them are now in very important positions.


Have some of the objectives of the founding of MSSRF been met?

I should think so. He was a visionary and thought about things like climate change well before anyone else was thinking about it. I do believe that the work of the foundation over the last 35 years has contributed a lot to finding solutions, particularly for small farmers, how they can be more resilient to climate change; from the Seventies onwards he was talking about it. He also put things into action, he didn’t just talk about it. He was very solutions-oriented.


How do you intend to take forward the agenda of MSSRF?

It’s very hard to walk in the footsteps of someone like him, but I am lucky that as a daughter, I could observe very closely his approach to things and to people. I’ll try my best to live up to his ideals. He was totally uncompromising and the foundation’s mission and vision is very much relevant today and I will try to take his work forward and scale it up to have more of an impact.


Everyone who met him say he was so patient and humble, so I guess he was a wonderful father to you all?

He was the kindest and gentlest human being you can imagine.


What are your loveliest memories of him?

The loveliest memories are of going out with him to the rice fields where he was doing experiments. Even though he couldn’t spend long holidays with us, he would take some days off every summer. I remember those nice and long train journeys from Delhi to Madras — it took 48 hours! He would accompany us if our mother could not bring us. And, he was always telling us about the places he visited and the people he met. We saw the world through his eyes before global travel become common.


Did he advise you to become a medical doctor?

He never advised; he didn’t believe in advising people. He would discuss and had his way of telling people. He never said to me anything about being or not being a doctor. These are some of the plus points. He said if you want to do research, get into medical research.