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Speech by Ambassador Nirupama Rao at function held by the Embassy of India, Washington, DC to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Norman Borlaug's first visit to India

Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator, USAID

Ms. Suzanne Heinen, Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, USDA

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn of the World Food Prize Programme

Mrs. Jeanie Borlaug Laube

Ms. Julie Borlaug, Associate Director, Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture:  I am so grateful to the members of the Borlaug family for honoring us with their presence today..

Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is an honor to remember Dr. Norman Borlaug and his great contributions to the advancement of agriculture and food production in India. Before I share my thoughts with you on this august and auspicious occasion, I wish to read to you a message we have received from the Honourable Agriculture Minister of India, Sharad Pawar:

“I am pleased to know that the Embassy of India, Washington is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the visit of Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug to India, on 7th August, 2013.

Dr. Borlaug led the global crusade against hunger with a missionary zeal and over the years succeeded in saving billions of lives from starvation. He developed wheat varieties that were resistant to several diseases; could grow under diverse agro-climatic conditions and possessed high yield potential. Through his efforts, India received the ‘miracle seeds’ of these wheat varieties and supported by enabling policies and R&D programmes, ushered the “Green Revolution” placing our food security on a firm foundation.

Till the last years of his life, he was actively involved in the fight against hunger. Soon after the first reports of occurrence of Ug99, a deadly rust disease of wheat during the 1990s, he mobilized the wheat researchers across the world to come together and formed the Global Rust Initiative, which today bears his name. Due to his pioneering efforts, many countries were enabled to take proactive measures in successfully checking the march of this disease. India is now a key partner in this global initiative. In a few days from now, the Borlaug Global Research Initiative and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research will be organizing a Technical Workshop during August 19-22, 2013, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Borlaug’s visit to India.

Dr. Borlaug left the world a heritage that includes billions of lives saved from the misery of starvation and inspired thousands of scientists worldwide who will continue to carry on his vision today and tomorrow.

I wish the anniversary event all success.”

Friends, when you consider the achievements of Dr. Norman Borlaug you realize that this is what legends are made of. And, you also realize that although he began his life’s work in Mexico, his “grandest theatre of operations” as it has been termed, was India. He believed in thinking outside the box. The wheat seeds he brought to India were described as impossibly ideal, producing 4000-5000 kg. of grain per hectare instead of the earlier 1000 kg. norm.

Our then Agriculture Minister, Mr. C. Subramaniam took the overnight, historic decision to approve the proposal by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan to allow for immediate farmer trials of the wheat varieties whose productivity had thus been demonstrated. The results were dramatic and they catalyzed a revolution. Decades before Twitter or Facebook, the word spread at lightning pace as farmers throughout India told their peers about the new varieties and the difference they were making in production of wheat.

Dr. Borlaug as it is said was the father of the green revolution, and given his dedication and commitment, it was clear he took being a father very seriously.  His favorite words were: there is no time to relax.

He had his first experience of what hunger and human misery  meant as a young University of Minnesota freshman in the fall of 1933: “I saw ..people out there on the streets in the cold, mostly grown men and whole families too, sleeping on newspapers, hands out, asking for a nickel, begging for food.” He knew then that there is no more essential commodity than food. In his words, “without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse”.

He became the man who saved a billion lives. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack who could not be with us today since he is travelling,  spoke at a memorial function at Texas A&M University in 2009 on how Dr. Borlaug’s experiences up to   the  age of 16 shaped his life – as a scientist, teacher, saver of lives. He learnt about subsistence farming, its risks and its perils. He understood mortality and the urgency of providing help to those sick and in need.  He saw the power of a helping hand, when he was helped by a caring cousin in a blizzard. He was encouraged to seek knowledge by his grandfather – he learnt to advocate for the power of technology to save lives.  Taught in a one room schoolhouse  he learnt that every student is a teacher and a student at the same time , he watched his father using fertilizer and machinery – turning subsistence into surplus – and that as you advance in learning, you advance in life, and that good instruction is better than riches, and kindness is the noblest weapon – as written on a plaque given by his teacher.

Dr. Borlaug’s lifelong motto was to reach for the stars, get a little of that stardust, and that we should all pursue our dreams against all odds. He demonstrated that so well in all that he did.

When our then Ambassador in Mexico, Rajiv Bhatia wrote to Norman Borlaug in 2006 saying he was being awarded the Padma Vibhushan,  he sent back a communication, “conveying his willingness to accept it …in the name of hundreds of Indian scientists, policy-makers and millions of farmers, without whom there would have been no green revolution”. That was the measure of the grace, the humility and humanism that Dr. Borlaug epitomized.

When Dr. Borlaug passed away in 2009, our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh expressing his condolences spoke of how “Dr. Borlaug's impact on India 's science and economy went much beyond the Green Revolution. A science-based approach to the problems of agriculture was a fundamental tenet of his thinking and the success of the Green Revolution spawned other successful interventions in areas such as animal husbandry, dairying and agriculture. Dr. Norman Borlaug's life and achievements are testimony to the far reaching contribution that one man's towering intellect, persistence and scientific vision can make to human peace and progress.”

Later in 2010, on our Independence Day, our Prime Minister announced our intention to set up the Borlaug Institute of South Asia in India. That Institute has since been set up with centres in three Indian states – Punjab, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. In fact, in just a few days from now, the Borlaug Institute of South Asia is launching the 50 Pact, to renew the promise of Dr. Borlaug among South Asia’s agriculture leaders.

Dr. Borlaug saw poetry in wheat. He vividly recalled the "whispering music of the ripening wheat sheaves in the Punjab". ("When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together," he said in another observation. "It is a sweet, haunting music that once you hear, you never forget.") What a difference that music made for lives across our vast subcontinent.

“Norm” as he was affectionately known, and as Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation which did so much to promote the pioneering work of scientists like Dr. Borlaug in India, once said, “was a whirlwind of creative energy and initiative. Yet, even after kings and presidents suspended prizes of peace and medals of freedom and scientific excellence around his slender neck, he somehow maintained humility and anonymity. The modesty Norm kept.” His name has become part of our zeitgeist, because he was one of those among us, who made miracles. There are not many like that, and we treasure his memory and his invaluable contribution to India’s development.  

Thank you all.