India Will Be Hard-Pressed to Find Another Anupam Mishra

In November, after a very cogent public speech on India's rivers, he was completely exhausted and in pain. But that he came anyway showed his dedication.

Anupam Mishra. Credit: Twitter

Anupam Mishra. Credit: Twitter

“I need to go and pay respect to the people fighting for India’s rivers” insisted the weak Gandhian, barely able to walk, on November 28. In his speech at the India Rivers Week’s inaugural ceremony on that day, Anupam Mishra, with his characteristically wry humour, asked whether changing stones and electric poles at the ghats was all that the government had to offer to rejuvenate the Ganga. He said that no amount of faith or funds would help the river unless we understood where the river was getting its fresh and polluted waters from.

Twenty days later, I could not believe that Anupam ji was no more. He breathed his last at AIIMS, Delhi, at 5.27 am on December 19, 2016. He was suffering from two cancers; doctors had tried everything to save him after complications had developed while at a private hospital earlier. He is survived by his wife and a son, Shubham.

Born in Wardha, Maharashtra, on June 5, 1948, he was the son of the famous poet Bhawani Prasad Mishra. He worked at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in the national capital in different capacities after finishing college in 1969. In his life, Anupam ji was known as a Gandhian author and environmentalist, with a focus on water conservation and traditional rainwater harvesting techniques and management systems. He rarely invoked the name of Gandhi himself – but he could connect to his principles and ideals in a way that would appeal to all, including the young. He was the editor of the bimonthly publication Gandhi Marg, published by the Gandhi Peace Foundation.

Anupam ji is perhaps best known for his knowledge about India’s traditional water-harvesting techniques. After eight years of rigorous field work on these issues, his most famous book, Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab (Hindi for ‘Ponds Are Still Relevant’), was published on the subject of traditional pond- and water-management. It was translated into 19 languages (including braille) and sold over 100,000 copies. Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein (‘The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan’), his next publication, in 1995, was specifically about water-harvesting and management in the western parts of Rajasthan.

He travelled extensively in towns and villages across several Indian states, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, describing the value of time-tested systems of water-harvesting. Amazingly, all his books are free of copyright and are available as PDFs on the web. A sole request is that it will be nice if the source is acknowledged. And through his books or not, it is safe to say that almost all work on local water systems in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and elsewhere in recent decades were inspired by Anupam ji’s work, either directly or indirectly.

Anupam ji was conferred the 1996 Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar by the environment ministry. He was awarded the Amar Shaheed Chandrasekhar Azad National Award in 2007 by the Madhya Pradesh government. He gave a TED talk titled ‘The ancient ingenuity of water harvesting’ in 2009. He is also the recipient of the Jamnalal Bajaj Award, 2011.

Besides these accolades, he was the chairman of the organising committee of India Rivers Week 2016 and a member of the Bhagirath Prayas Samman (an award for exemplary work on river conservation) jury since its inception in 2014. In spite of his poor health and weak body, he came to our organising committee meetings several times, most recently in September (note: Himanshu Thakkar helms the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People). After the inaugural session of India Rivers Week, after a typically cogent speech, he was completely exhausted and in pain. But that he came anyway showed his dedication to the cause.

Personally, he was most affectionate and encouraging of my activities for over two decades. When he wrote a postcard to me some 20 years ago, I was just starting my work on India’s water-policy issues. I hadn’t expected it at all, but ever since, he had been relentlessly pushing me on. I would later learn that he was that way many other people working on problems to do with India’s water and environment.

India will be hard-pressed to find another Anupam jiAs Ravi Chopra, director of the People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, has said, he was truly unique, incomparable and matchless. And when a friend and colleague like myself feels so much for the loss, I can only imagine how his close family and friends must be feeling. His legacy is so rich that one is tempted to believe that it will never fade. In his last public appearance, when he delivered that speech through so much pain, he had ended by saying that we need to save our rivers for our own survival. He also said that the rivers week initiative must continue.

One hopes that this statement alone should suffice to reminds us every day of the tasks that lie ahead. We must succeed in our work.

Himanshu Thakkar leads SANDRP. He can be reached at [email protected].