Anupam Mishra

‘A Radical Indigenous’

Shriya Mohan

Even IN 1971, Anupam Mishra, then a 23-year-old writer and activist with the Gandhi Peace Foundation, was going on six cylinders, as he continued till his end.

One of Mishra's first public service interventions was as part of a team that negotiated the surrender of Chambal's fearsome dacoits. Through "Operation Persuasion", Mishra, Prabhash Joshi and others helped Jayaprakash Narayan negotiate a deal with the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan for the peaceful return of the dacoits—whom the team had persuaded to renounce violence—to normal life.

The dacoits formally surrendered at the Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram in Joura, Madhya Pradesh, in April 1972. Thousands of people watched them lay down their arms in front of a portrait of Gandhi.

Those who knew him remember Mishra as the unequivocal Gandhian, whose words held power because they were informed by an innate understanding of human condition. He lived with a conviction that broke barriers and won over dacoits, policymakers and common people alike.

Mishra breathed his last at Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences. He was 68.

In the end, it was prostrate cancer that got the better of him. But even in his final days, he never stopped being the symbol of what he stood for—nothing ever is too little, all the difference lies in how one makes use of life's bounty.

Two years later after the surrender of the dacoits, Mishra was the reason the Chipko movement earned the national attention it deserved.

The Symon Company of Allahabad, a maker of sports goods, had been allotted some ash trees in the Mandal forest, 13 km from Gopeshwar in Uttarakhand. In April 1973, a public meeting was held at Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh to decide on direct action against the Symon Company.

‘Chipko Movement’, the book Mishra co-authored with Satyendra Tripathi, describes what transpired at the meeting.

The question was the same in every village, "How can we save the trees from being axed?"

That was the moment Chandi Prasad had been waiting for. "You can save the forest by clinging to the trees, and dare them to let their axes fall on your backs," he said.

Thus was born the Chipko Movement.

In July 1993, Mishra published a book that made the world sit up and take notice of the age-old techniques of water harvesting. In Aaj Bhi Khare Hai Talaab (The Lakes Are Still Alive), Mishra takes readers through drought-stricken villages of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, narrating how the villagers use traditional scientific water harvesting knowledge to cope with drought. The book, now accessible online, describes how decentralised water storage systems such as baolis (step wells), kuis (narrow wells), chaals (small water body along a slope, typical of Uttarakhand), johads (tanks fed through earthen check dams), ponds, wells and lakes, can help communities withstand drought.

Twenty five years after it was published, the copy right-free book, written in lucid Hindi, continues to inspire scores of farmers, government officials and activists across the country to use a variety of simple methods to make their communities self-reliant in water.

Jaisalmer, for instance, saw 4 mm rainfall in July 2014 and 33 mm rainfall in July 2015. (To understand how low that is, drought-hit Latur received 28 mm rainfall in July 2015 while the national average was 192.7 mm). Both years, Jaisalmer survived with dignity, not requiring a single water tanker from the state.

Last year, at the National Consultation on Drought in Delhi, an open letter was read out by Chhattar Singh Jaam, representing farmers of Ramnagar in Jaisalmer. The letter, widely published in the media, was drafted by Mishra.

"Before the drought, caused by the shortage of rainfall, comes a drought of ideas", it read, putting to shame the states crying hoarse for more and more water.

Mishra believed that knowledge cannot be owned by anyone. Copyrights, in his opinion, deflated the wheels of the social mission his literary works were crafted for. And so, to set an example, he freed of all copyrights his own works and those of his father, the Hindi poet and author Bhawani Prasad Mishra.

"His greatness lay in that while his understanding about environment and water was so profound, he always simplified everything he said to reach the lay person and kindle a sensitivity towards the environment in everybody. He was so evolved to be selfless about the knowledge he had. Listening to him changed how you looked at the world around you," recalls singer Kalapini Koinkalai, the daughter of Kumar Gandharva, who knew Mishra closely.

"As a true Gandhian, you acknowledge that what you do springs from what scores of people have done before you. You are standing on their shoulders. You remember the debt. You do not claim authorship. Your work belongs to everyone," says a long-time associate of Mishra.

Swaraj Abhiyan founder Yogendra Yadav said, "He was into copyleft and rainwater harvesting much before these were buzz words. He was a radical indigenous without being parochial. And he drew such little attention to himself. He wanted you to see the world through his eyes; not see his eyes. He was the instrument of something socially beautiful".

Mishra's father was involved with the Quit India movement, for which he was imprisoned. Mishra was born just a month after his father was released, in Mahilashram, Wardha, close to where Gandhi lived. Thus groomed in that sensibility, being Gandhian, for Mishra, was not what he chose to be one fine day, it was, quite simply, the only way to be.

That sensibility came through during Mishra's editorship of Gandhi Marg, the peer-reviewed journal of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, which he joined in 1969 and never left.

"A good editor edits our thoughts and makes us better than who we are. He was my touchstone and moral compass, someone I learned to trust blindly in the face of complex situations," the long-time associate says.

He was one of the first generation of environmentalists of India, but Mishra kept an understated profile. And although he spoke fluent English, he worked and wrote in his mother tongue—Hindi.

There won't be another like Mishra, the man who gave to this country so much in exchange for so little.


Vol. 49, No.34, Feb 26 - Mar 4, 2017