Some 30-odd schoolchildren stood in rapt attention in a forest far away from the maddening crowd when Jadav Payeng, the ‘Forest Man of India’, made them take a pledge that they will not fell trees. “We emit carbon dioxide, which the trees inhale. The trees emit oxygen, which keeps us going. So, if you cut the trees, you all will perish. Take a pledge today that you will not fell trees but grow them,” Payeng tells the children of classes VI to VIII.
They had come all the way from Uriamghat on the Assam-Nagaland border to meet Payeng, whose nickname is Mulai Kathoni.
On their way, the children had to traverse through a bumpy and dusty road and then cross a part of the river Brahmaputra in a motorboat to reach an island. There, they boarded a tractor, which eventually took them to Mulai Kathoni.
He shot to fame by single-handedly transforming a 550-hectare barren sandbar in the Brahmaputra in Assam’s Jorhat district into a sprawling forest.
The forest, created by Payeng over 30 years, has an estimated 100,000 trees and is home to rhinoceros, leopards, elephants, rabbits, apes, birds, snakes, vultures, deer, wild boars and wild buffaloes. The animals come to the forest from Kaziranga National Park, which is not far away .
“He is called the Forest Man of India. He is a living example of what a man can achieve. People worldwide can draw inspiration from him and we brought the children here so that they get inspired,” one of the four teachers accompanying the school students told The Sunday Standard.
Payeng’s efforts have more relevance in Assam, which has witnessed an alarming loss of its forest cover. A recent Forest Survey of India report revealed that the state lost 19 sq km of its forest cover between 2009 and 2011 due to human encroachment.
“It all started in 1979 when the floods devastated my village and its neighbouring areas. That year, the forest department had launched a scheme to grow trees on the sandbar and engaged me and some others as labourers. When the others went back home after the completion of the project, I chose to stay back and went on growing trees,” ,” says Payeng.
“The floodwaters receded after a few days but it became very hot. I saw hundreds of snakes, washed ashore by the floodwaters, dying. Livestock jumped into the waters to beat the heat. It was an unprecedented situation Then, I resolved to grow trees all my life. I started by growing bamboo trees,” he says.
Payeng lives six km away from the forest. He crosses the Brahmaputra in his boat, but often spends days in his forest hut. His wife Binita and their three children stay with him at times. He rears cows and buffaloes and sells their milk to eke out a living.
Payeng’s efforts were first noticed in 2008 when forest officials raided Mulai Kathoni in search of a herd of wild elephants that ran amok in a neighbouring village.
“I gave all my life to turn a barren sandbar into a forest. I don’t have riches but I feel satisfied to have stirred up the conscience of a lot of people who love nature. My only regret is that my efforts haven’t been recognised in my own state,” Payeng laments. In 2012, he was honoured at the world conference on global warming in Paris. The same year, the School of Environmental Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University feted him in Delhi.
“I am happy to have been named for the Padma Shri, which I will receive in April. But my only concern is whether we can save the world. We all have to prevent people from felling trees,” he says.
The Good Samaritan
● Payeng’s ‘forest’ has 100,000 trees and is home for rhinos, leopards, elephants, apes, birds, snakes, vultures, deer and other fauna
● He started the forest by growing bamboo trees in 1979
● He has been honoured at the world conference on global warming in Paris
● He will receive the Padma Shri in April