The country might have been eating red coloured chapatis today had it not been the breakthrough research of the pioneering plant breeder from Punjab, Dr Dilbagh Singh Athwal, who passed away in United States on May 14. Athwal, who laid the foundation of Green Revolution in India in 1960s, is the one holds credit for the amber colour wheat foodgrain India is fond of today. Through his research, he modified Mexican wheat varieties according to Indian needs and changed them from red to amber.
He was the first Indian scientist who collaborated with the great US scientist Dr Norman Borlaug to bring Green Revolution in India playing pivotal role in making India self sufficient in wheat production. Athwal passed away at the age of 88 in New Jersey after a brief illness. Speaking to The Indian Express, Dr Manjit S Kang, former Vice Chancellor, Punjab Agricultural University, said, “It was through wheat varieties from Mexico that foundation of Green Revolution was laid in India. There is a specific reason why Athwal was called a magician when it comes to plant breeding. None in India was fond of red colour dough or chapatis and Mexican varieties had been introduced without making any modifications. India imported ‘Lerma Rojo 64’ and ‘PV 18’ wheat varieties from Mexico. Their yield was excellent, but their colour was red and chapatis made from them were not perfect. It was through hard work and dedication of Dr Athwal that they were modified as per Indian conditions and color changed to amber. Today, what we are eating is amber colored wheat.”
He then named modified wheat variety as ‘Kalyan’, after the name of his village. Later, another variety ‘Sona’ developed by ICAR, Delhi was merged with his variety and called ‘Kalyan Sona’. His another remarkable achievement was development of hybrid bajra (millet). Dr Athwal was the founder-head of the Plant Breeding Department at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU). An international guest house at PAU was named after him recently as a tribute.
Dr S S Johl, internationally renowned food economist who was a colleague of Dr Athwal, said, “His dedication towards research work can be gauged from the fact that PAU had appointed him on two posts — director research and head of plant breeding department. He would have easily chosen director research position, but he chose being head of plant breeding department. The most remarkable work of his was to convert red wheat of Mexico to amber colour as per Indian requirement. In India, we were never fond of red dough or rotis. Amber wheat is what India liked and this man converted red Mexican wheat to amber colour with his research and efforts retaining the features and yield of Mexican varieties.”
In 1967, he joined the management of International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and eventually served as the Institute’s first deputy director general. He later moved to US and settled there. Dr Rajinder Sidhu, Registrar, PAU, said that the university had organised special ardaas (prayers) at university gurudwara few days back after learning that Dr Athwal was unwell. “A special condolence message from Vice Chancellor Dr B S Dhillon has been sent to his family in the US. Our international guest house is already named after him. We are in touch with his family,” said Sidhu. Dr Johl said that “the university should also plan to introduce some medal or special scholarship after his name to motivate students”.
“The point is that students should remember him and know who he was,” added Johl. A memorial service will be held at Lawrenceville Gurudwara in New Jersey on May 27 for Dr Athwal.