WORLD INTHAVAARAM, 2023–40

Kumar Govindan
14 min readOct 7, 2023

About: the world this week, 1 October to 7 October 2023; Trouble in the US; Bedbug attack in Paris; Father of India’s Green Revolution; The Noble Prizes; and the Asian Games.

Everywhere

The United States Speaks

In a shocking event, for the first time in the history of The United States (US) of America, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy earned the dubious distinction of ‘the first ever House Speaker to be removed from office’.

Came the comment, “It took 15 rounds of voting for McCarthy to become the House Speaker in January, but only one to get ousted from the job”.

McCarthy lost a no-confidence vote, 216–210, with eight Republicans voting with 208 Democrats to end his tumultuous nine-month-long leadership of the Republican majority in the lower chamber of Congress.

The Republicans criticised McCarthy for mishandling government spending and budget fights since the Republicans took over the House in January. And accused him of cutting a ‘secret side deal’ with US President Joe Biden on providing additional funding to Ukraine, which has become a source of outrage. McCarthy denied the existence of any such deal.

The Democrats unanimously voted to oust McCarthy as he shares a close relationship with former US President Donald Trump. And he had recently launched an impeachment inquiry into Biden for benefiting from his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings, among other issues.

The House was then adjourned for the week and might reconvene on 10 October to discuss McCarthy’s successors. Given the deep polarisation within not only the House but also the Republican Party, the path to electing a new Speaker remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, the US is grappling with an outbreak of ‘migrant infiltration’ into the country from across the Mexican Border and authorities are overwhelmed. Thousands have crossed into the US from Mexico, in recent weeks, and border cities are bulging with people.

Increases in violence in certain regions of Mexico has fuelled the migration. People arriving at the US border have the right to request asylum without being criminalized, turned back, used for political stunts or separated from their children. Asylum -under US Law-is a form of protection granted to individuals who can demonstrate that they are unable or unwilling to return to their country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Paris: Bug Attack

France’s Paris is under attack — by bedbugs, with a widespread outbreak occurring across public spaces.

From hotel rooms to trains to movie theatres, Paris seems to be crawling with bedbugs. Reports of the bugs plaguing hotels and rental apartments first flared up over the summer, and now Paris is coping with an infestation just 10 months before it is set to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Full-grown bedbugs are brown or reddish-brown with an oval-shaped body about the size of an apple seed, while their young are much smaller, translucent or whitish-yellow, and can be very hard to see. Bedbugs come out at night to feed on human blood.

Mosquitoes and Bedbugs are after our blood. Watch out!

Father of India’s Green Revolution: India Grows

Towards the end of last week, probably one of the greatest Indians in the history of India passed away in Chennai, Tamilnadu, India, at the ripe old age of 98, on age-related issues. And maybe many did not notice his greatness at all.

He is agronomist, agricultural scientist, plant geneticist, Mankombu Sambasivan (M S) Swaminathan, who led India’s dynamic push, in the 1960s, to become self-reliant and food grain surplus, promoting the use of hybrid varieties and chemical fertilisers as the need of the hour. He prevented India from ‘certain starvation’ and is deservingly called the Father of India’s Green Revolution.

He could achieve this stupendous outcome due to two other visionary Leaders- who have passed to the legions above: then Prime Minister (PM), Lal Bahadur Shastri and then Minister for Agriculture and Food, Chidambaram Subramaniam — called the architect of the Green Revolution.

On another track, the PM-Minister duo were also responsible for bringing in Dr Verghese Kurien who founded the National Dairy Development Board, which ushered the Indian White Revolution or Operation Flood, making India self-sufficient in milk and milk products.

First, a grain of history.

India’s struggle to meet its food grain demand first began in the year 1937 when Burma (now Myanmar) separated from British India. The problem got accentuated when India lost West Punjab and East Pakistan — to Pakistan / Bangaldesh — during Independence and Partition in 1947. Burma was a crucial region for growing pulses, East Pakistan was a rice bowl and West Punjab, which had a well-networked canal system, was a wheat granary.

Before Independence, under British Rule, in the year 1943, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered food grains meant for eastern parts of India to be diverted to the British troops in World War II. This resulted in a deadly man-made famine in Bengal causing deaths of millions of people, besides aggravating and extending India’s food shortage problem until the early 1950s.

Indian agriculture sector’s struggle after Independence was also due to the farm sector being neglected in favour of industries. Imports of food grains affected agriculture as farmers did not have any incentive to produce more.

A few in the Government believed that it was cheaper to import food grains than to incentivise domestic agricultural production. As a result, wheat prices dropped sharply until 1963, preventing any private investment in wheat-growing regions, which held promise in the 1950s. During the period 1961–65, food grain production growth halved from nearly 3% in 1955–60 as India depended on rain-fed agriculture.

The ‘young’ Government of India then signed a long-term agreement with the United States under the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, also called Public Law (PL) 480, to get food aid, in 1954.

Under the program India got little rice. And the wheat supplied was so bad that critics called it ‘unfit for pigs’. Gradually the US began pulling political strings over food supply, making it contingent to India’s support of US action in Vietnam. India became entirely depended on the US for food — not imports that India paid for.

(The agreement was signed a few more times before the US ended it in the late 1960s. This was because PM Lal Bahadur Shastri and then PM Indira Gandhi were unwilling to make policy changes, especially to allow privatisation of the industrial sector, in return for food aid).

The food situation in India in the 1960s was pathetic, with food production dropping continuously and reaching a nadir in 1966. In the background was a burgeoning population — more mouths to feed every year. Until 1965, when the population was more than 500 million, wheat output in India was barely 12 million tonnes. India was a country infamously living ‘ship-to-mouth’ on imported US grain. The situation was so bad that the US Scientists predicted deaths of millions due to starvation in the 1970s. However, that prediction did not happen, as in the decades since annual wheat production has multiplied almost 10 times to 112 million tonnes.

In the year 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri took over the prime ministership of India following the death of Jawaharlal Nehru. And soon after, India was attacked by Pakistan, leading to War. At the same time, there was an awful scarcity of food grain in the country.

In a radio address to the nation PM Shastri reminded people that dependence on food imports undermined the country’s self-confidence and self-respect. This is when he gave the nation an inspiring, unforgettable slogan: ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (Hail the soldier, hail the farmer). “Sacrifice one meal at least a week”. This was his plea to Indians in 1965 when India was at war with Pakistan. He urged people to manage the situation: for the farmer to produce more, the trader to market supplies at fair prices, and the consumer to exercise greater restraint on consumption.

Chidambaram Subramaniam who was the Food and Agriculture Minister in Shastri’s Cabinet favoured the introduction of science and technology in farming and began a process of engaging agricultural scientists, which marked the advent of agricultural science in India.

Now, enter M S Swaminathan. But, first a quick flash back on his roots and how he arrived on the field, when India needed someone like him, the most.

Swaminathan was born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, in 1925 to a General Surgeon father and home-maker mother. He began his studies at the local school and later at the Catholic Little Flower School, Kumbakonam for where he passed his Matriculation Exams, at age 15. He was deeply influenced by his father who was also a social reformer. His parents wanted him to study medicine. With that in mind, he started his higher education, with zoology. But when he witnessed the brutal impact of the Bengal famine of 1943, during World War-II and shortages of rice throughout the sub-continent, he decided to devote his life to ensuring India had enough food. Despite his family background, and belonging to an era where medicine and engineering were considered prestigious career options, he chose agriculture.

From childhood, he was close to farming and farmers; his extended family grew rice, mangoes, and coconut, and later expanded into other areas such as coffee. He saw the impact that fluctuations in the price of crops had on his family, including the devastation that weather and pests could cause to crops as well as incomes.

He went on to finish his undergraduate degree in zoology at Maharaja’s College in Trivandrum, Kerala (now known as University College, Thiruvananthapuram, University of Kerala). After graduating in zoology, he joined the Madras Agricultural College (University of Madras, now the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University) and graduated with a Bachelor Science degree in Agricultural Science, from 1940 to 1944.

‘Devastated’ by the Bengal famine of 1943, Swaminathan chose a career in genetics to find ways and means of improving the livelihood of Indian farmers by increasing food production. In 1947 he moved to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi to study genetics and plant breeding. He obtained a post-graduate degree with high distinction in cytogenetics in 1949.

Social pressures resulted in him competing in the examinations for civil services, through which he was selected to the Indian Police Service (IPS). At the same time, an opportunity appeared in the form of a UNESCO fellowship in genetics in the Netherlands. Yet again, he chose genetics.

Swaminathan became a UNESCO fellow at the Wageningen University & Research, Netherlands’, Institute of Genetics, for eight months. The demand for potatoes during World War II resulted in deviations in age-old crop rotations. Swaminathan worked on adapting genes to provide resilience against parasites, as well as a cold and frost-resistance. To this effect, the research succeeded. Ideologically the university influenced his later scientific pursuits in India with respect to food production. During this time he also visited the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in war-torn Germany; this would later be another deep influence on him, as during his next visit, a decade later, he saw that the Germans had transformed Germany in so many aspects.

In 1950, he moved to study at the Plant Breeding Institute of the University of Cambridge, School of Agriculture, United Kingdom. He earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1952.

Swaminathan then spent 15 months in the United States. He accepted a post-doctoral research associateship at the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory of Genetics to help set up a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) potato research station. The laboratory at the time had Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg on its faculty. His associateship ended in December 1953 and in the same year he met the legendary American Agronomist, Dr Norman Borlaug, when the latter gave a speech on controlling rust disease in wheat. It was the beginning of an association that continued after Swaminathan returned to India. Swaminathan turned down a faculty position in order to work on achieving his goal of improving India’s food production, by taking up a Government job.

Swaminathan returned to India in early 1954. There were no jobs in his specialisation. And it was only after three months that he received an opportunity, through a former professor, to work temporarily as an assistant botanist at the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack in the ‘indica-japonica’ rice hybridisation program. This stint would prove to be a solid stepping stone to his future work with wheat. Half a year later, he joined Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi in October 1954 as an assistant cytogeneticist.

Swaminathan was critical of India importing food grains when 70% of India was dependent on agriculture. Further drought and famine-like situations were developing in the country.

By the year 1959, Norman Borlaug had reported impressive results in growing a high-yielding wheat in Mexico, which used a dwarfing gene from Japan known as Norin10. His young Indian counterpart was the only plant geneticist in Asia who took notice. Back then, the finest varieties of wheat and rice in India, under the best conditions and with adequate doses of fertilizer, could give only 20% to 30% more than the average yield. They could not stand high doses of chemical fertilizers, nor would their slim stems bear the weight of ears of grain.

Swaminathan who helmed the wheat programme at IARI convinced the government that the high-yielding dwarf wheat which US scientist Norman Borlaug introduced in Mexico was the answer to India’s grain shortage. He wrote to his Director in April 1962 on the implications of Borlaug’s success with semi-dwarf wheat that held more grain; he wanted his boss to invite the American scientist to India and request for material used during spring trials in Mexico.

With the political leadership scouting for ways to combat food shortage, the government soon wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation (which funded the Mexican programme) asking for Borlaug’s services and the seeds at his disposal. Borlaug visited India in March 1963 and later sent 100 kilograms of seeds of dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties. These were used widely on ‘demonstration plots’ to persuade farmers in Punjab to try it out. Swaminathan adapted the seeds to suit Indian conditions and trained farmers in their cultivation. And because the Borlaug grain was red in colour, the Indian scientists cross-bred them with local varieties to give it its characteristic golden colour. Today, almost all the wheat grown in India has the signature of the original material that came from Mexico.

In Punjab alone, the wheat yield increased nearly three-fold in five years — from 1.9 million tonnes in 1965–66 to 5.2 million tonnes in 1970–71.

In the 1968, Rabi harvest, India produced 16.5 million tonnes of wheat, over 30% more than the highest before that. In two years’ time, wheat production was double the average output during 1960–65. The Green Revolution had got going.

India needed a huge quantity of fertilisers, estimated to cost USD 250 million then. It needed foreign financial aid and India managed to get it from then US President Lydon B Johnson. The rest is history.

Swaminathan knew even then that intensive use of fertiliser was a short-term measure to tide over near-famine conditions. In later years, he batted for what he called an ‘Evergreen Revolution’ through organic farming. Swaminathan was also instrumental in bridging scientific know-how and farmers’ do-how by the effective use of the radio and television. He contributed to the concept for ‘Krishi Darshan’-one of India’s longest-running TV programmes- aimed at disseminating agricultural information to rural farmers.

India’s food production in 1967 was 11.3 million tonnes. By 1970 it went up to 20 million tonnes and then there was no looking back, ever.

Today India’s food grain production is a whopping 315 million tonnes!

Swaminathan’s collaborative scientific efforts with Norman Borlaug, spearheading a mass movement with farmers and other scientists and backed by public policies, saved India from certain famine-like conditions. His leadership as director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines was instrumental in his being awarded the first World Food Prize in 1987, recognized as one of the highest honours in the field of agriculture. The United Nations Environment Programme has called him ‘the Father of Economic Ecology’.

MS Swaminathan met his wife Mina while studying in Cambridge and the couple had three daughters, all of whom went on to become established figures in the academia and global development: Nithya Rao is professor of Gender & Development at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom; Madhura Swamination is Professor in Economic Analysis Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Bengaluru; and Soumya Swaminathan is a former Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization. His wife Mina Swaminathan died in 2022. She worked as a Teacher in St. Thomas’ School, New Delhi.

He left behind enough food for us, in India.

Monsoons: Not Benefitting India, this Time

Breaking the four-year trend of good rainfall in either ‘normal’ or ‘above normal’ category during 2019–2022, India recorded ‘below normal’ monsoon rainfall at 94.4% of the long-period average. This according to data for the June-September period released by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) late last week. The Met department, however, forecast ‘normal’ rainfall for winter monsoon in Peninsular India during October-December.

Nobel Prizes: Benefitting Mankind

This week, The Nobel Foundation tasked with the ultimate responsibility of fulfilling Alfred Nobel’s Will continued doing so and blasted-off its annual announcements in quick succession.

Recall the excerpt of his will, where Alfred Nobel dictates that his entire remaining estate should be used to endow “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”.

The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, ‘for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19’. I had hoped this would happen. Read more about that story on

The Nobel Prize in Physics went to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier ‘for experimental methods that generate attosecond pulses of light for the study of electron dynamics in matter’.

‘Atto’ is the scientific notation prefix that represents 10 to the power of (-)18, which is a decimal point followed by 17 zeroes and a 1. So a flash of light lasting an attosecond, or 0.000000000000000001 of a second, is an extremely short pulse of light.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Moungi G. Bawendi, Louis E. Brus and Alexei I. Ekimov , ‘for the discovery and synthesis of quantum dots’.

Quantum dots (QDs), also called semiconductor nanocrystals, are semiconductor particles a few nanometres in size, having optical and electronic properties that differ from those of larger particles as a result of quantum mechanical effects.

The Nobel Price for Peace went to Iran’s Narges Mohammadi for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all. Narges is the deputy head of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, which was founded by fellow Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. The 51-year-old is currently being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for ‘spreading propaganda’. She has been arrested 13 times, convicted five times, and sentenced to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes. He brave struggle has come with tremendous personal costs.

Asian Games: Medal Haul by India

India continued its terrific performance at the Asian Games 2023 in Hangzhou, China sending home a ton of medals. Its total medal tally eclipsed the previous high of 70 in the Jakarta Asian games, Indonesia in 2018.

At the time of this publication, India had won a total of 95 Medals (expected to reach 100): Gold-22; Silver-34; Bronze — 39, occupying the fourth place after China-350, Japan-166, and South Korea — 164.

The Asian Games close on 8 October 2023 and India has a story to tell with inspirational performances by various athletes from amazing backgrounds.

More medal stories coming-up in the weeks ahead. Work with World Inthavaaram.

--

--

Kumar Govindan

Once an Engineer, now a Make-in-India Entrepreneur; Wordsmith; Blogger; maybe a Farmer!