The quiet fighter
Anupam Mishra wrote with insight and creativity about peasants, pastoralists and the sustainable use of water.
by Ramachandra Guha
Rana Dasgupta ends Capital, his fine, sometimes searing portrait of 21st century Delhi, with a walk he took with an environmental scholar through the city’s northern reaches. The environmentalist explained to the writer how Delhi’s water system had once worked, based on the retention of rainwater through an intricate network of tanks and canals. Before the British came, said the scholar, the life of Delhi was centred around the Yamuna, with festivals and water games. However, the capital of the Raj and of independent India treated the river merely as a sink for its wastes. And it had built over the tanks that the more far-seeing citizens of the earlier generations had constructed.
The Yamuna that now flows past Delhi is biologically (as well as culturally) dead. The scholar who took Dasgupta for a walk told him that “everyone has turned their backs on the river in obedience to the modern city, and so it is filthy and forgotten”. He also remarked, “If our prime minister had to immerse himself in the Yamuna every year, it would be a lot cleaner than it is now”.
The environmentalist who thus educated Dasgupta was named Anupam Mishra. Mishra who died of cancer on Monday morning, aged 68, was — in the words of Gopalkrishna Gandhi — an intellectual without a trace of snobbery, an activist who was never judgemental about what others did or did not do. He was an altogether remarkable man, who embodied both the best of what Indian scholarship can offer, as well as a Gandhism that is utterly relevant to the 21st century.
That Mishra was not as well known as he might have been — across India or abroad — was a consequence of his choosing to stay away from the language of power and fame. He knew English quite well, but decided to be resolutely monolingual in his own work. There may have been three reasons for this. First, he was the son of a celebrated Hindi poet, Bhawani Prasad Mishra, and did not want to repudiate that legacy. Second, once he had chosen to write in Hindi, he had to wholly immerse himself in that linguistic world to be able to communicate effectively. Third, and perhaps the most important, since he wrote about the lifestyles and living practices of peasants and pastoralists in northern India who themselves spoke some variety of Hindi, it seemed more appropriate to write his own books and essays in that language. (Apart from a TED talk which has had close to 8,00,000 viewers , Mishra’s work was done almost entirely in Hindi.
Some of his recent writings are available at http://www.mansampark.in)
The first book of Mishra I read (it may have been the first he wrote) was a short but extremely insightful study of the Chipko Andolan, written in collaboration with Satyendra Tripathi. It was published in the late 1970s, based on fieldwork in the villages of the upper Alaknanda Valley where Chipko was born. The book paid due attention to the efforts and vision of Chipko’s leader, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, while also documenting the contributions of peasants, both men and women, who were the backbone of what was to become the most celebrated (as well as the most misunderstood) environmental movement in the non-Western world.
In the 1980s, Mishra turned his attention to water conservation and management. He realised that water, not oil, was the key to a sustainable future for India and the world. (As he put it in his TED talk, water is the centre of life.) He saw the callous treatment of water all around him, the pollution of rivers by careless city dwellers and the reckless depletion of groundwater aquifers by farmers with electric-powered tubewells. So, he began documenting the indigenous systems of water harvesting that were rooted in community control and based on a careful understanding of the local landscape.
He focused on Rajasthan, a desert environment with negligible natural rainfall, yet with a rich and still often extant network of wells and tanks. Based on research conducted over many years, he published a series of books and pamphlets in Hindi, whose titles — Rajasthan ki rajat boondein and Aaj bhi khare hain talaab — suggested that the modern man had much to learn from his predecessors, those he tended to condemn as stupid or backward.
I knew Mishra mostly through his work. I met him rarely, yet every encounter was either uplifting or transformative, sometimes both. In the 1980s, I went to consult him for my own doctoral research on the Chipko Andolan.
In the 1990s, when I was a fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), I invited Mishra to give a talk around his book Aaj bhi khare hain talaab. The NMML, then led by the visionary Ravinder Kumar, was at the height of its glory, the very centre of Indian intellectual life, patronised by famous foreign scholars too. Here, through his understated words in Hindi and his arresting slides, Mishra delivered what was one of the most compelling talks ever heard at the NMML, its echoes resounding in conversations in the corridors for weeks afterwards.
A decade later, I heard Mishra speak at a meeting celebrating the work of Chandi Prasad Bhatt where, in a mere five or six minutes, he brilliantly summed up the essence of Bhatt’s contributions to Gandhian thought and activism.
Our last meeting was a few months ago, when I went to call on him on hearing he had cancer. He was suffering visibly, yet spoke as softly and with as much depth as ever. With us was his young collaborator Sopan Joshi, who has, in recent years, done much to make Mishra’s work reach a new generation.
Asked to identify five individuals who have contributed the most to the environmental movement in modern India, I would name the activists Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Medha Patkar, the scientist Madhav Gadgil, the journalist Anil Agarwal, and Anupam Mishra. Of these five, Mishra is by far the least-known, even among the environmental community. This is a consequence of the choices he made, personal as well as linguistic, by stressing reconstruction rather than protest, and by writing in Hindi rather than English.
We should remember Anupam Mishra for his substance, for writing with such insight and sensitivity about the resource most critical to our lives, yet one we so wantonly abuse — water. And we should remember him for his style — no boasting, no bombast, merely steady, solid work based on research and understanding, rather than ideology or prejudice.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is ‘Democrats and Dissenters’
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Chipko movement to water conservation: Anupam Mishra leaves behind a rich legacy of knowledge
The 68-year-old Gandhian died on December 19, after a long and painful battle against cancer.
by Harsh Mander
Gently and with the quiet dignity that characterised the way he lived his entire life, Anupam Mishra left the world on December 19, 2016. He was 68, felled after a long and painful battle against cancer. He leaves behind a massive and fertile legacy of knowledge distilled from centuries-old indigenous folk wisdom, about the ways that we must live with our planet if our world and we are to survive.
I was privileged to know Anupam Mishra from the days of the Emergency, more than 40 years ago. The Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi in those days was a hub of resistance to the Emergency, and also a nucleus for the propagation and generation of Gandhian ideas. As a university student and for some years after, I volunteered with the foundation. Anupam Mishra had joined it a few years earlier, and he became in those days a close friend and thoughtful guide. I knew rural India too little at that time, except from books. With his encouragement and direction, I began to travel, and spent a few years trying to experience and understand India’s rural people and life, and also the intolerable inequities and deprivations that characterised our countryside.
These were the initial years of my politicisation. I was attracted to the ideas of the Left, but also to Gandhi. Many of my learnings and insights about Gandhi came from long conversations with Anupam. He had immersed himself in the Lohia movement after his post-graduate studies in Sanskrit in Hindu College, Delhi University, and volunteered to work with the towering Jayaprakash Narayan’s campaign for the voluntary surrender of dacoits of the Chambal valley. This charismatic movement caught the imagination of the country at that time, because it powerfully demonstrated the application of Gandhian ideas to crime and punishment, building on the possibility of reform of even dreaded criminals through a change of heart. This association led to Anupam’s first book, Chambal Ke Bandooke, Gandhi Ke Charanon Me, written with journalist Prabhash Joshi and Shravan Kumar Garg.
The book is out of print, but I could find an extract:
“(T)he Chambal Valley – a place… enough to strike terror in one’s heart – for this area has, through the ages, been an ideal sanctuary for people who, for various reasons, have turned outlaws. The martial background of the people, their fight against alien invaders and rulers, and the immense socio-economic disparities, have combined to produce rebels or ‘baghis’ – a name also given to the dacoits… In 1971… Jagroop Singh, an emissary of Madho Singh, another notorious dacoit… traced JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] to Patna. In spite of his preoccupations and ill health, JP, sensing a genuine change of heart and desire to solve the problem of dacoity, agreed to take up the challenge. He… issued an appeal on 13 December 1971, advising them to surrender, requesting the community to open its doors for their peaceful return to normal life and the government to consider their cases sympathetically. For six months, JP conducted his ‘Operation Persuasion’ not as a spiritual leader but as a social worker. Except for the dare-devil Madho Singh, his contacts with the dacoits were through the Chambal Ghati Shanti Mission. Assisted by Pandit Lokman Dikshit, and Tehsildar Singh (ex-dacoits) and Madho Singh they worked day and night, not caring about their personal safety. The dacoits had to be traced in their hideouts, deep in the jungles and ravines. The Madhya Pradesh police had created an undeclared peace zone to make mobilisation easier. JP came into personal contact with the dacoits when he camped at the Pagara Dak Bungalow 70 kilometres away from Gwalior and situated atop a hill. The dacoits with their families had been camping in the village of Dhorera down the hill. Dhorera, an otherwise sleepy village, won world-wide fame almost overnight. The first to come to meet JP was Mohar Singh who carried the highest reward of Rs 2 lakh on his head. The government was sceptical about his desire to surrender because, unlike Madho Singh’s, his gang was intact and he was equipped with most modern arms. He told JP that his only condition for surrender was that he should be the first! The dacoits formally surrendered in batches at the Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram in Joura, on 14 and 16 April 1972. Thousands watched them lay down their arms in front of a portrait of Gandhiji, and cheered them as they shouted ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai’, ‘Vinobaji ki Jai’, ‘Jaiprakashji ki Jai’. A wave of relief seemed to sweep the Valley of Terror.”
During the years that we spent together at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Anupam Mishra was greatly drawn to the Chipko Andolan led by Chandi Prasad Bhatt. With Satyendra Tripathi, he wrote The Chipko Movement, which was very influential in bringing to the attention of both India and the world at large this unique movement for “hugging the trees”. In this evocative and effective form of mass non-violent resistance, women and men demanded that if a tree was to be felled, they should be cut down with it.
The carefully researched account described for the rest of the world this incipient eco-feminist mass movement of forest conservation that began in 1973. This went on to establish a precedent and a model for non-violent protest in India, as well as for many later environmental movements all over the world. Their account of this mass movement inspired many eco-groups around the world to fight deforestation, expose forest mafia, enhance ecological awareness and, above all, demonstrate the strength and weight of non-violent and grounded people’s movements and struggles. Their reports highlighted, especially, the role of women as the backbone and also the mainstay of such struggles – women were the ones most affected by rampant deforestation because it resulted in shortages of firewood, fodder as well as water for drinking and farm irrigation, and ultimately added to the care and collection-based unpaid work burden on them.
I left the Gandhi Peace Foundation to join the Indian Administrative Service in 1980, and since I spent my subsequent years mostly in far-off corners of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Anupam Mishra and I lost contact, although I remained informed and influenced by his work. After I finally returned to Delhi and especially after the Gujarat carnage of 2002, I became increasingly critical of the foundation and Gandhians in general for not taking as strong and outspoken a stand against communal politics as I would have hoped. The few times I discussed this with Anupam Mishra, he did not dismiss me as judgemental as many others did. He listened to me in his gentle, civilised way.
Anupam Mishra remained for most of his adult life a staff member of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, serving several years at its helm as its secretary as well. He retired in 2007, but the foundation was not willing to let him go and he, therefore, continued to work with it until he left the world. Yet, as pointed out by his close friend Himanshu Thakkar, he rarely described himself as a Gandhian. He was and remained one of the most credible faces of the institution, which otherwise had its peaks and troughs over the years. He also edited for many years a leading journal of Gandhian thought called Gandhi Marg.
Anupam Mishra is, of course, best known for his work in discovering and chronicling traditional systems of water harvesting in water-scarce regions like Rajasthan. He celebrated the technical and environmental wisdom and skills of often non-literate creators and maintainers of these extraordinarily complex systems. His books, photographs, slides and talks about these have influenced two generations, not just of environmentalists but also students, engineers, social workers and thinking, concerned citizens. His writings on this subject have been translated into 19 languages from India and around the world, including Braille.
His son Shubham, an architect, told me about his work in recent years unearthing and documenting traditional water conservation, storage and regeneration systems in Delhi, to which successive dynasties contributed. Each contributed to recharging the underground water table, and these flowed into a series of small streams and rivulets that crisscrossed the city and then all flowed into the Yamuna. But today, these rivulets are dirty nallahs, the Yamuna a receptacle of all of Delhi’s mostly untreated waste, and the city has recklessly built over its multitude of wells, tanks and water passages. Anupam Mishra could not live long enough to put these into a book, but his son is committed to collecting and putting up all of these, and indeed all his books, pictures and talks online as an open resource for future generations. It was a matter of principle for Anupam Mishra that all his books were without copyright, and this electronic resource will likewise be open-source.
There are few people who have contributed more to our understanding of not just traditional water systems but also people’s own knowledge carried over through the generations than Anupam Mishra. His enduring influences are both on Indian environmental movements and the democratisation of knowledge itself. Yet, he remained self-effacing, low-key, deeply committed to immersing himself in his chosen work with hard work, study and research. His criticism of modern science and technology and government systems was laced in irony and wit rather than anger and judgement. There are few men as gentle and civilised as him, a man who was at once authentic, reflective, a fighter, and democratic. His passing leaves a large empty space in India’s eco-democratic movements, which will be very hard to fill.