Anupam Mishra: The Power of Purpose

A tribute to Anupam Mishra (1948-December 2016), award-winning author, journalist and renowned environmentalist who researched and championed effective traditional methods of water conservation

Photo courtesy: Youtube
Photo courtesy: Youtube
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Sopan Joshi

Any material from this book
can be used in any way by anybody.
It will feel nice if you mention the source
.”


In small type, the line is easily missed—as also the name of the author, which is not printed anywhere else in the book. The copyright page of Anupam Mishra’s books usually carry a surprise or four.


Those who have known the man for decades know well that his life and work are steeped in understatement. He is best known for two volumes that document water management practices in India and the desert state of Rajasthan. He spent several years researching these books with passion and purpose.


He travelled on shoestring budgets, shot photographs, met people nobody bothered to interview, created social relationships with them and maintained them over years, gathered critical information, collated it over months, verified information and cross-checked the facts. But when it came to writing a book, he produced no tomes, and he has never asserted copyright, which means several ordinary individuals and large publishing houses have brought out their own editions of his book, some without his knowledge, even.


At a time when the Hindi publishing industry languishes and complains about lack of readership, close to 200,000 copies have been printed of his book Aaj Bhi Khade Hain Talab, in more than 40 editions. It is already regarded as a phenomenon in the publishing world. It has Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu, French and English translations. It has a Braille edition for blind readers. It is being translated into Arabic.


He has not earned a rupee in royalties. The book has touched lakhs of readers in a way that few books do. It has taken the message of traditional water management in India, inspiring numerous efforts to revive such traditions. The book’s success owes as much to Mishra’s writing and research as to his decision to forego copyright.


His understanding of politics and economics is a result of four decades of public-spirited journalism, social activism and research.

Anupam Mishra travelled on shoestring budgets, shot photographs, met people nobody bothered to interview, created social relationships with them and maintained them over years, gathered critical information, collated it over months, verified information and cross-checked the facts. But when it came to writing a book, he produced no tomes, and he has never asserted copyright

Noble purpose seeks no power

On Anupam Mishra’s chair in New Delhi’s Gandhi Peace Foundation—he worked there from 1969 to 2016, and was the editor of the highly rated bi-monthly magazine Gandhi Marg—is a sticker that says: Power Without Purpose.


He was a young man when Banwarilal Choudhari, an agriculture scientist who quit his government job to join Mahatma Gandhi’s call for freedom from the British colonial rulers in 1942 under the Quit India Movement, taught him a lesson: good work is not dictated by resources. Its strength, beauty and durability do not depend on the amount of money spent. Mishra saw the sense in it. The impact was as deep as it was long lasting. Mishra made it the cornerstone of his life and work. It tempered his decisions and associations for over four decades—personal and professional.


Such influence was hardly surprising. Mishra’s father Bhawani Prasad Mishra had put everything at stake when he jumped into India’s struggle for independence. He was arrested in 1942 from the Central Provinces for engaging in non-violent protests against British colonial occupation of India. He spent three years in the Nagpur Central Jail, and was released only in 1945.


During his incarceration, his father read and wrote extensively. In the years to follow, he would go on to become a household name in northern India as a poet and writer of renown. After his release from prison, he settled in Wardha, Maharashtra, along with his wife and a growing family.

Mishra was a young man when Banwarilal Choudhari, an agriculture scientist who quit his government job to join Mahatma Gandhi’s call for freedom from the British colonial rulers in 1942 under the Quit India Movement, taught him a lesson: good work is not dictated by resources. Its strength, beauty and durability do not depend on the amount of money spent

A childhood in an atmosphere of public spiritedness

This is where Anupam Mishra was born on June 5, 1948. His early childhood was spent in Wardha, Hyderabad, Mumbai and the villages of Durg district, in what is now the state of Chhattisgarh. He was in class VIII when his family moved to Delhi, and his father took up a job at All India Radio. By 1969, Mishra had obtained a Master’s degree in Sanskrit after graduation from University of Delhi’s Hindu College.


This is when he joined the Gandhi Peace Foundation (GPF); his initial tasks included research and publication work for numerous social interventions. It was his first and only job; he stayed there all his working life. A noted institution, GPF’s founding members included India’s first three presidents, Rajendra Prasad, S Radhakrishnan, and Zakir Husain, and the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was a hub of social engagement, where littérateurs and politicians exchanged ideas with artists and social activists. Mishra started as an apprentice in such an atmosphere—planning publications, editing articles, commissioning writers, learning photography, chiselling his language skills. He worked alongside some of the best writers of the time, and learned from them.


His early assignments included mobilising militant rebels and dacoits of the Chambal area of Madhya Pradesh to surrender arms. At the time, the violence and social turmoil in the region was comparable to what India is witnessing today in the Maoist insurgency in central-eastern India. GPF’s mission was to find a non-violent and socially acceptable end to this violence. Anupam Mishra worked for this alongside two associates, Prabhash Joshi and Shravan Garg, both of whom went on to become leading editors of major national newspapers. The trio travelled through the ravines of Chambal, finding interlocutors who would help them meet the rebels and running great risks to establishing contact with them.


The drive ended in a dramatic surrender and laying down of arms by the rebels and insurgents in front of MK Gandhi’s photo. Within seven days of this surrender, Mishra and his two colleagues of GPF had produced a book titled Chambal Ki Bandookein Gandhi Ke Charnon Mein. B George Verghese, a noted journalist and reviewer, dubbed it the “fastest journalism in India”.


The Chambal assignment became a blueprint for how Mishra worked hereafter. He would engage with social problems, travel to the hotspots, work like an activist to feel the pulse of people, act like a resource-person to bring them in contact with other people who could help them, and record their stories with the methods of journalism—gripping current affairs writing and photography. GPF had a country-wide network of social activists and groups; it was a hub of wider socio-economic concerns. Mishra began to tap into this network to find causes that needed representation and reporting.

Mishra’s early assignments included mobilising militant rebels and dacoits of the Chambal area of Madhya Pradesh to surrender arms. At the time, the violence and social turmoil in the region was comparable to what India is witnessing today in the Maoist insurgency in central-eastern India

Social concerns as environmental concerns

It was such a task that took him to from the erosion-prone ravines of central India to the high-altitude villages in the Himalaya in 1973. He had heard of villagers near the Nanda Devi range protesting logging permits to a sports goods manufacturing company.


He travelled there, understood their conditions and their protest, and reported on it. This was among the earliest accounts of the Chipko movement in the Garhwal Himalaya. It showed how environmentalism in a developing country like India is different from that in industrialised societies. Villagers—mostly unschooled and without a formal education—were protecting the environment and forests, while the forest department and educated corporate groups wanted to cut down natural forests.


Anupam Mishra became one of the earliest documenters of this struggle. He became a friend and guide to other journalists and researchers recording this struggle. It was the beacon call of India’s environment movement, which was actually a call for protection of the environment to protect the survival base of India’s rural communities.


Mishra had found his calling. From 1974 to 1982, he engaged with the Mitti Bachao Andolan, a campaign to protect the rich, fertile black-cotton soil of Narmada basin in central India. This is before the larger Narmada Valley Development Project became a reality. A dam built on the Tawa river was supposed to provide irrigation via canals. This was entirely unsuitable given the nature of the black soil of the region.


Mishra, again, was among the earliest to record the adverse effects of the irrigation project and its unsuitability in that terrain. Within a few years, the German Development Bank, which was funding the project, pulled out and broke all association with it in view of its damaging effects. Mishra found a natural extension of his work in the Narmada river basin, where dam projects were coming in. He travelled across villages and reported on their conditions. This is the time when a larger consciousness was emerging in India about the effects of large dams.

Mishra had heard of villagers near the Nanda Devi range protesting logging permits to a sports goods manufacturing company. He travelled there, understood their conditions and their protest, and reported on it. This was among the earliest accounts of the Chipko movement in the Garhwal Himalaya

From ravines to the Himalayas, the Narmada river and the Great Thar Desert

It was around 1980 that Mishra learned of a village campaign in the desert district of Bikaner to protect grazing lands in village commons. In the Thar desert, agriculture has traditionally had a limited role in a rural economy dominated by animal husbandry, which is much better suited to the regional ecology.


It was while understanding traditional ecological practices of the Thar that Mishra got introduced to what would become his most enduring work: the traditions of water management in Rajasthan. Over the next decade, he travelled extensively across India to record how water management was central to village and town planning in India since forever. He researched these practices and traditions, photographed them, and gathered information that would only come to somebody who was on a mission.


This mission resulted in a book in 1993: Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab. And since Rajasthan had the most intricate systems of water conservation and management, he brought out another book two years later than focused on this remarkable region, titled Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein.


The first book went on to become a bestseller nonpareil in Hindi publishing. In 2005, India’s leading current affairs magazine India Today included it in it list of 30 evergreen page-turners written in India. It was one of three Hindi books, and the only one on a subject like water conservation and environment. It has earned appreciation and approbation across the world, as much for the quality of its research, the depth and relevance of its message, as for the attractiveness of its writing and design.


Mishra’s earlier work had inspired several grassroots activists and groups. He had never been merely a reporter or a raconteur—rather a go-to man for social and environmental activists, a friend-philosopher-guide. This role blossomed with the success of his two books. Ordinary citizens across the country have found in his writing inspiring examples to solve their pressing problems themselves.


Formally and informally, he stayed in touch with small groups across the country, regularly, and over time. Often in the form of hand-written letters sent by post, several of which were treasured by the recipients. He made the effort to stay in touch and engage socially, forming friendships and associations that are as varied as they are rich.

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