Tanking up on history

NOTED environmental activist and writer Anupam Mishra's recent book on tanks is a significant contribution to environmental studies for at least three reasons: first, it establishes the historical and continuing role for, and the current relevance of, traditional water conservation, irrigation, and drinking water systems, even faced with the state's studied negligence; second, it explores the socio-political context in which collective knowledge allows people to participate more fully and creatively in their own social existence; third, the subaltern history of environmental issues can be documented, in the field, using the instruments of folk idioms, memories and oral narratives.

Mishra finds a variety of stories regarding tanks circulating in village after village, without so much as a mention in the vast reams of history written top downwards. In the ground-level oral history of various societies, tanks crop up with different names and connotations; they are so firmly entrenched in quotidian life that the task of building them is entrusted to particular communities but their maintenance remains the responsibility of the entire village.

Mishra uses living examples to carve a scenario in which tanks are not scattered exotica but are an intrinsic part of a large, well-thought out water conservation network within a particular social context. The methodology behind tanks was locked into cold storage by the British and subsequent top downwards "development" policies; but they continue an obstinate existence, testifying to the scientific vitality of traditional wisdom.

The study has its pitfalls: Mishra suggests that external factors like colonialism, terrible planning, pathetic education and urbanisation are to blame for the current neglect, without ever digging into problems nearer home, like the internal socio-economic and cultural killing fields of a rural society riven by caste, class and gender conflicts. There is no debating that bad planning, for instance, is responsible for the suppressing of tank building methods, but there are other factors: in a society where water is a currency of power, landlords grab tanks to grab power, as in Madhubani in Bihar; and the countrywide caste system makes a mockery of democratic water usage.

Nevertheless, this book deserves close attention: the documentation is impressive, and it open up avenues for future academic and policy planning exploration. It is a welcome addition to the growing stack of environmental history, which has been providing alternatives to problems like eco-degradation and rural pauperisation.

Mukul is a special correspondent in Navbharat Times