My heart swelled with pride to read a tweet on March 5. It was from Nick Low, the British High Commissioner to Kolkata. He expressed his excitement to visit my home state of Assam to present the Commonwealth Points of Light Award on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The honor is for Jadav ”Molai” Payeng, who single-handedly planted and nurtured an entire forest on the island of Majuli. It is a prestigious recognition for volunteers who have made differences in their community and beyond with their selfless service.
Jadav Payeng is also a Padma Shri awardee (2015) and the recipient of the Swami Vivekananda Karmayogi Award (February 2020). His contribution towards environmental conservation is unique and invaluable. Is it only the big, fat bundle of currency notes that aids us to combat global warming and climate change? Jadav Payeng would definitely think otherwise, for this man, who loves the environment from the bottom of his heart, has done his utmost to protect Mother Earth minus the crisp notes. Human effort and dedication hold more value to him.
Payeng’s journey began as a teenager in Assam on a river island on the Brahmaputra. Deforestation had left the land barren and vulnerable to erosion. The year was 1979, and like other years, torrential floods had once again wiped the region. The situation, aggravated by excess heat, had made the island a graveyard for reptiles. The influx of migratory birds to the habitat was also decreasing. It saddened Payeng to think that humans could suffer the same fate in the absence of vegetation. He approached local village elders who asked him to plant bamboo plants.
It was a mission fraught with hardships and strenuous efforts. Where there is a will, there is definitely a way. To nourish his plants, Payeng came up with his own creative idea of irrigation. He built bamboo platforms over the saplings and placed on them earthen pots with tiny holes. The water from the pots would drip and water his plants over several days.
A tree plantation scheme was started by the social forestry division of Golaghat district in the village of Aruna Chapori over a 200 hectare plot of land. Payeng had worked there as a laborer. The project was not a permanent, ongoing process, but he continued on the trek even after it ended and the other laborers had left. Over time, Payeng planted different species of plants and tended to them to fulfill his dream of converting the area into a forest. It was only in 2008 that a greenland was discovered with forest officials coming in search of a herd of elephants that were causing damage in a nearby village. Thereafter, the Forest Department was drawn to the area and regularly visited the site. The forest came to be named as Molai forest after Payeng’s nickname.
Jadav Payeng has earned wide appreciation for his work although the laurels have come many years after the inception of his project. The School of Environmental Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University organized a public function on April 22, 2012 to felicitate Payeng. He was officially bestowed the title “Forest Man of India” by Vice Chancellor Sudhir Kumar Sopory. Foresting Life (2013) is a documentary by Aarti Shrivastava celebrating the story and life of Jadav Payeng. William Douglas McMaster’s Forest Man (2013) also chronicled Payeng’s journey and earned the Best Documentary prize at the Emerging Filmmaker Showcase in the American Pavilion at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Married with a wife and having 3 children, Payeng is settled in a life of bucolic simplicity with cows and buffaloes and sells milk for his livelihood. He is not afraid of the forest and calls it his home. He sees God in nature and looks to her for hope and inspiration Although he has lost many of his cattle to tigers, he has no bitterness and reasons out that it is human beings who have indulged in deforestation and have pushed wild animals to such a state.
A famous Chinese proverb runs, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. And it was the small step that Payeng initially took that has borne fruits. The mission started with planting a few saplings every day for decades. And now forty years later, his forest spans over 1300 acres and is said to be even larger than Central Park in New York. Molai forest is a haven of Bengal tigers, rhinos, deer, rabbits, monkeys, and several varieties of birds including vultures.
Jadav Payeng’s bonding with the forest has sincerity, commitment, patience, and passion as its weaving threads. And embedded in this knot is the tale of a hero’s service to protect Mother Nature and mankind. It is a story to be inscribed for posterity to revere and remember a selfless soul who seeks to make the world a better place.
Image via Youtube
Born in India, Rashmi Bora Das moved to the United States in the early nineties.
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