Messy Landscapes: Prophecies of Doom, Rambling Yatris, and A ‘Clumsy’ Gospel

An architect’s walk along the Barua Nala, along with an eclectic bunch of yatris, reveals the dynamic problems and variegated solutions of community resource management

The idyllic countryside is a picture of completeness and quiet. In one direction, gigantic Mahua and Mango trees line rural roads that skirt fields of earth, baked golden in the white summer light. Behind me rise the ramparts of the primeval Parasamania Plateau, here in a corner of Satna District, Madhya Pradesh, in Central India. The once lush forest-canopy is largely shorn in the heat of this unending summer. All movement seems to flit from and between the shade of trees that mark the roads and punctuate a rolling landscape of open fields – standing outside in the heat of the strong sun is unbearable. Sweat runs down my forehead, and I wipe it with a wet towel, sweltering in the absence of a breeze. There has been little respite for the last two months. From my perch under the canopy of the mammoth Kahuva tree, I look towards the mostly dry riverbed and empty fields beyond, fallow and expectant. I am told that come monsoon, the first shoots of wheat will emerge and the now golden yellow and dry ochre of the fallow earth will be transformed into a bucolic and verdant landscape containing nearly every shade of green. Then the nallahs – seasonal rivers – will spring to life, carrying life-giving waters through the vast landscape, affluents of the Tamas River, which flows 300 km in a North-easterly arc from Jukehi near Katni, on towards Prayagraj, meeting the holy Ganges a little downstream at Sirsa.

This is an old landscape. A copper plate discovered in these parts, is dated to 5th CE, and it advises kings to be benevolent to Brahmins, to ensure the perpetuity of the land rights of that community. Bharhut hill bears the celebrated ancient Stupa, built in 2nd CE.; it lies in the distance just beyond my line of sight. The region is criss-crossed with channels that meander through the rise and fall of earth, and the path rises and descends across them as we make our way from village to village, but there is no water anywhere in sight. In and between villages, I observe boys and girls, women and old men, carrying cans for water, to what must be distant homes. These seem to be familiar sights. I am on a yatra (or, journey) with several others, and we are winding our way between villages settled by evidently diverse peoples; we improvise our rehearsed parts, talking, engaging and sharing knowledge and ideas. Some people break out into song, and all join them, singing about this river-and that seed, this place and that spirit.

Arun Tyagi (looking at the camera) with the Yatra. Though unwell, he refused to travel in the Jeep, and walked in the heat, only stopping briefly for rest. Picture Credit: Sourabh Popli

I am travelling through the Southern fringe of Satna district, in the hinterland of Madhya Pradesh, through villages fringed with Mango and Jamun trees, of enormous Mahua and Banyan trees that cover entire fields, through modest lime-plastered earthen houses with terracotta tile roofs – archetypal villages and an ancient landscape. The primeval Parasmania plateau above the plains where I am wedged, forms a constant presence – for even when it isn’t visible, each of the many streams of the region receive waters from its forested slopes, and the land is itself formed by its eroding countenance. Its flows regulate and permit life – made fragile by other unseen presences upon the landscape. 

Limestone and/or life

The region has rich limestone deposits, contributing nearly a tenth of India’s production through vast open cast mines, and this method has transformed the landscape in a matter of decades from one rich in biodiversity and stable cultural values, into an industrial hinterland of sooty or dust-laden trees, the constant rumble of rolling steel trucks and wagons, of vast networks of cables, lines and pipes suggesting distant markets and places beyond the horizon.


My nearest companion is of the earth of Baghelkhand, a poet and venerable chronicler of the history of this region. He observes the drought-like condition of the hinterland, and recounts to me how, in just a few decades, calamitous changes are apparent in the landscape. In his memory that spans seven decades, he has never before seen entire rivers dry up, an alarming scarcity of water enveloping every corner; of people and industries engaged in a furiously competitive race to draw ever larger quantities of the liquid of life from deep below the earth, and I see in my mind’s eye this unquenchable thirst in every eye. This close observer has explained the region’s insatiable thirst for surface and ground waters since the switch from traditional crops to hybrid rice, wheat, and the growing demands of feed for livestock and poultry. As the local economy becomes increasingly more enmeshed with the national market economy – with distant cities becoming enormous consumers of local produce, sourced from this faraway hinterland by an extensive network of transport and communication – there is a great pressure on this landscape, to switch from long-lived practices of agriculture that provided a sustainable basis for rural life.

With the arrival of industrial boring technology – first developed for the extraction of oil from geological strata deep within the earth – commercial groundwater extraction by deep (and large bores) is now commonplace, with feverish noise and accelerating pace in every corner of the landscape. 

Of the eight administrative Blocks in Satna District, the Central Ground Water Board classified two as ‘semi-critical’, two as ‘critical’, and one as ‘over-exploited’ and three as (currently) ‘safe’ in 2013-14. This followed from the previous assessment in 2003-04 when only one was ‘critical’, and the seven others were all ‘safe’. Coupled with the absence of surface flows in lean season, the increasing trend of critical groundwater aquifers compounds a sense of anxiety and unease with regards to the health of the landscape and that of beings of every shape and form, for none could survive without its beneficence. In government and urban circles, there is little to remind us of the enormity of this unseen threat that lurks so close by.

Numerous studies have regarded groundwater exploitation across India – estimated to be an unprecedented 19.2 Gigatons per year – as ‘unsustainable’ (see for instance, Panda and Wahr 2016). Though one may miss the visible signs, pundits estimate that ‘85% of the utilisable water resources of 1,123 billion cubic metres of water’ – a figure that includes a large quantum of extracted groundwater – is consumed by the agriculture sector alone. Sounding the alarm, they describe the Indian subcontinent as a “future global hotspot for food and water scarcity” and a ‘water-stressed region’.


Notions of risk structure modern life, unseen but ever-present, in that no matter where we are, and what we might believe, we are never free of its cold logic. Contrary to common perception, our lives are being shaped, and are unfolding continuously by someone’s calculations of risk, and our tacit acceptance of it. Risk to contemporary life is essentially not the absence or improbability of hazard, but the distance to and from it, and the likelihood of exposure to it.

Risk is internalised in modernity, and its profligate parent, scientism – through which the infallible authority of knowledge and value-judgements dictates a cold and ‘objective’ science – renders the everyday experience and common judgment of reality suspect. Bewitched by its language, assurance, and promise, some wield impossible power, some seek capricious profit, while others retreat in bewilderment into indolence, and still others are marginalised to invisibility. They surface thousands of kilometers away in India’s burgeoning metropolises, sleeping on roads and under the sundry flyover. Even the most conservative of estimates for people displaced by ‘development’, numbers in several millions across India since Independence. Critics suggest that it would be worthwhile to view things from the perspective of eliminating this blighted view of national progress.

Scarcity and its economy

It is my case here, that the ‘scarcity’ of water, is caused by a range of activities that have been encouraged by government policy and oversight, and include a mistaken view of the narrow economic goal for agriculture; this is sought to be mitigated by large scale infrastructure of dubious efficacy, such as the canal bringing in water from the distant Narmada watershed. The resistance of gradients, displaced people and resource poverty is overcome by fallacious arguments based on the ‘twin fictions’ of ‘objective’ science and ‘management’ – resulting in glossy project reports with dubious cost-benefit analyses that cater to a constituency of technocrats, contractors and usurious lenders. The multiple and cascading risks of this enterprise are seldom given the attention they deserve in official manifestoes and vision documents of the various departments of the government, that incentivise agricultural extension, mining, forestry, urban development, irrigation and social development. How much would a switch to traditional forms of agriculture cost? What are the impediments to promoting traditional forms of production in the rural landscape? What are its costs, and what are its benefits? 


How is this state of affairs to be remedied? 

The current predicament requires farmers, as well as the enormous industrial units to stop extraction of already-critical ground water to produce cash crops and cement and other products of importance to the industrial economy. At present, policies implicitly encourage the large-scale use of energy, and water – both scarce resources in this region – in all spheres of economic life. It is necessary that drastic changes are made to government policy before these are forced upon the system by an inclement or devastated environment. Businesses depend upon large-scale extraction and are driven by aspiration and consumption. Schools, and other institutions continue to churn out a large workforce trained for industrial jobs, which also hinge upon the availability of the environment – no longer an externality – as resource depletion, and wasting reaches critical levels.

The current predicament of impending ecological and social crises has been explained by the social-historical impulses of elitism, scientism, and economism. The hegemonies that these forces foster are sought to be resisted by people-centered approaches in science, that are focused on increasing the awareness of the risks faced by ordinary people and an encouragement to shift to low-impact forms of production and consumption, including food. Clearly, this requires new thinking, and new rules – new ‘institutions’. Institutions are the socially implicit, relevant and established rules of behavior that structure interactions in various spheres.

The formal practice of development through ‘projects’, which at least in our context, is based on a linear methodology of survey-analysis-design is sought in our scheme, to be replaced by ‘reflexive’ systems of thinking development goals, and ‘open’ processes that integrate feedback into normative goals as well as flexible/evolving methodologies. 

Critical studies have dwelt on models of participation, as well as its counterpart; non-participation. Acknowledging that the participation of some can also mean the exclusion of a few has necessitated the ‘Yatra’, our model of travelling from village to village, covering all those that fall on the catchment of the Barua Nala – a water course and tributary to the Tamas River down valley. For us too, as it applies to our country at-large, the yatra has deep and affective resonances with Gandhi ji’s institution of walking – both as resistance, as well as practice for communion. Along the way, we meet diverse people, seek out others, ask men to bring their womenfolk, for children to bring their parents and grand-parents, and inquire about family and community histories.

The author along with other yatris. Picture Credit: Sourabh Popli

As a forum for thinking and discussion, we are intent on ensuring-encouraging ‘truly representative’ participation, so that new institutions are wrought – in order to bring awareness and a call for action. The yatris are an effervescent, communion-based mass of simultaneously nebulous and contradictory identities, the educated and the mobile among the economically and politically disenfranchised, and every sort of variation therein. 

Different premises are often obstacles to effective and lasting solutions, and can result in conflict. If the stakeholders remain too attached to their own argument, there can be little progress on the various issues that concern the larger interests of society. Varying in levels of advantage, proximity to power, and social agency, large numbers of people are presently disenfranchised from the policy and political processes that are shaping their lives and habitat.

It is urgently required to bridge the apparent gulf between ideological and political positions with solutions that are situated in specific contexts, and acknowledge diversity of interests and interdependence. Similarly a ‘good’ science, one that prioritises human welfare, and inclusivity of benefits, is needed to integrate various constituents to mutual benefit-sharing. The acknowledgement of various agencies shaping the landscape and the voices of others must be heard in totality, and brought together to achieve “a vibrant multivocality in which each voice puts its view as persuasively as possible, sensitive to the knowledge that others are likely to disagree, and acknowledging a responsibility to listen to what others are saying” (Michael Thompson, 2008).

In his classic text, Thompson terms this condition, ‘clumsiness’. Following from Michael J. Schapiro’s (1988) definition, Thompson advances ‘clumsy institutions… (as) those institutional arrangements in which none of the voices… is excluded, and in which the contestation is harnessed to constructive, if noisy argumentation’. I see that this formulation, however imprecise, contains the logic and method of a truly democratic grassroots society.

Building dialogic and ‘deep’ institutions 

Developing a local leadership around water and other themes of natural resource conservation at the village level, the yatris situate learning and policy-thinking close to the ground and alert to local problems and possibilities. This comes close to Ney’s (2006) definition of ‘deep core’ strategy and to integrating often differing and irreconcilable positions vis-a-vis policy objectives and definitions. The yatris comprise of different backgrounds, including some who are privy to knowledge of government and official policy in addition to that of a regional geography; and through the process of dialogue and mutual discovery, engage those who are otherwise liable to be excluded – and this throws up similarities with the ‘clumsy institutions’ that Thompson advocates. To me, this does seem to be the path out of future conflict and misery.

As the yatra wears on, based on the perpetual condition of intimate human contact and sharing, each yatri undergoes a process of self reflection and transformation. Individual premises and beliefs are destabilised by the contact with the unfamiliar, and equally often, the unexpected, while notions are simultaneously consolidated into a fluid, emergent collective. Mutual contact and reassurance helps to iron out doubts, and misgivings about the process. Considering the ambition and constraints imposed by culture, distance and scale, this process is expected to require continuous and long-term impetus, which requires prolonged engagement and study to judge its efficacy. Post-script – This article is, to me, a mournful obituary to an extra-ordinary man, Shri Arun Tyagi ji, of Sidhi District, who passed away due to illness in a most untimely manner. He was the spiritual and intellectual anchor and motive force for this yatra and its manifold programmes. This article is dedicated to his pure spirit, his lifetime’s work and the hope he inspired in the face of every conceivable constraint and obstacle. In him, his associates were fortunate to meet the true karmayogi – a man of courageous action, an altruistic prayerful spirit, and undying moral life. I offer this to him as a most humble an

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