Scholar and activist Anupam Mishra, who died in 2016, was among the foremost Gandhian thinkers of our time and had some crucial lessons to offer on water conservation, writes Mayank Jain.
India celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi earlier this week. On this occasion I am reminded of a famous Gandhian, Anupam Mishra.
Mishra was born in Wardha, Maharashtra, on 5 June 1948. He worked at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi in different capacities after finishing college in 1969. He was also the editor of Gandhi Peace Foundation’s bimonthly publication, Gandhi Marg. Known for his calm and low-key personality, Mishra was admired by intellectuals, politicians and academicians alike.
In an article published in the Indian Express Ramachandra Guha wrote, “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.”
Mihsra travelled extensively to various Indian states, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, as part of his lifelong mission to understand different systems for harvesting water, as well as to educate people about the importance of water conservation.
He was conferred the 1996 Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar by the environment ministry. In 2007, he was also awarded the Amar Shaheed Chandrasekhar Azad National Award by the government of Madhya Pradesh, and in 2011 he won the Jamnalal Bajaj Award.
I got to know about Mishra on 20 December 2016, only a day after his death. I came across a Facebook post about the “death of a great Gandhian”. After a few Google searches, I grew more curious about his work.
I found that he had written a few books in Hindi about water conservation, and that he was the son of the celebrated poet Bhawani Prasad Mishra. I then watched some of his lectures on YouTube. There’s a video in which he discusses the relevance of Gandhi. He delivered this talk in Jaipur, in Hindi. Something he said here has stayed with me ever since. It can loosely translated as, “Gandhi is a term used for traders who trade in bulk in Gujarat. Mahatma Gandhi thus traded in love, in truth and in non-violence.”
I had never seen a real, a thinking Gandhian before. Like Gandhi, Mishra was also a great critic of modernity, progress and the bogus idea of development that politicians don’t tire of selling to us.
In a TEDx talk, he spoke about how ancient wisdom can show us the way forward. He mentioned this in the context of water conservation. “The city Jaisalmer was well-connected to Europe around 800 years ago. Despite that, it is a very rain-deficient region. Residents of the city had indigenous technologies of water conservation like rooftop water harvesting. Jaisalmer had around 52 water bodies and some of them are still around.”
He explained that we are forgetting this ancient knowledge and spending recklessly on water without really thinking about long-term solutions. We should learn from the residents of ancient Jaisalmer, who were aware of the perennial shortage of rainfall in their region, and therefore valued every drop of water they could get.
“The government introduced a multi-billion project to bring water from the Himalayas to the most arid regions of Rajasthan. These projects were not only a failure but also a waste of money,” Mishra said.
He also spoke about the Jaigarh Fort in Jaipur, in which the catchment areas can collect 6 million gallons of rainwater in one season. This fort is 400 years old and it draws water from canals that stretch as far as 15 kilometres.
With his characteristic wry humour, he said at the TEDx event, “A 50-year-old road can cave in, but this 400-year-old structure still stands. These structures have been there for centuries, for generations, without any department really taking care of them, and without any maintenance fund.”
The subject of water conservation takes centre stage in his acclaimed book Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab (The Ponds Are Still Relevant). Mishra’s prose is beautiful and almost poetic. Despite its rather dry and scholarly subject, this book is full of emotions. At the same, it is a hugely informative read.
Mishra writes, “Once Delhi had around 350 small and big ponds.” But now, many of those ponds and water channels have turned into sewerage pits. Who is responsible for this negative turnaround? According to Mishra, this has happened because of administrative mismanagement and our official class’ fixation on a particular model of development.
For viable solutions, our policymakers should look not towards the future, but towards the past.
“Today’s engineer cannot match the quality of our ancient architects. Those so-called illiterate engineers built on the basis of knowledge transferred across generations. This knowledge was in their blood,” Mishra said in a TV interview.
What Mishra teaches us goes beyond the principles of ancient architecture and water-conservation techniques. He teaches us something more essential about ourselves. As he once said, “Education begins when you realise that you know nothing.” This idea is similar to what Socrates had once told his followers, and what Gandhi lived his whole life by.