The quiet fighter

Anupam Mishra wrote with insight and creativity about peasants, pastoralists and the sustainable use of water.

Written by Ramachandra Guha | Updated: December 21, 2016 9:42 am
Anupam Mishra, Anupam Mishra work, Anupam Mishra writing, writer Anupam Mishra, rana dasgupta, delhi water system, yamuna, yamuna water, yamuna water harvesting, gandhism, Chipko Andolan, indian express column, column, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, india news 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. (Illustration by Subrata Dhar)

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

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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