Thursday, July 18, 2024

World’s first man-made forest- A conversation with Jadav Payeng – Forestry worker and activist

GS Dr Prahalad Das

Jadav Payeng is a great son of Assam who belongs to an indigenous community, i.e. The Mising community. He has been an environmental activist and forestry worker since his adolescence. He is popularly known as the “Forest Man of India.” Over several decades, he has planted and taken care of trees on a sandbar of river Brahmaputra and turned it into a forest reserve. The forest, named Molai Forest after him, is located near Kokilamukh in Jorhat, Assam, and encompasses an area of about 1,360 acres / 550 hectares. Now the forest is home to Bengal tigers, Indian rhinoceroses, over 100 deer and rabbits, monkeys, and several varieties of birds, including vultures. There are several thousand trees, including Valcol, Arjun (Terminalia arjuna), Ejar (Lagerstroemia speciosa), Goldmohur (Delonix regia), Koroi (Albizia procera), Moj (Archidendron bigeminum), and Simolu (Bombax ceiba). Bamboo is spread over an area of nearly 300 hectares. A herd of around 100 elephants visits the forest annually and generally stays for around six months.

In 2012, William Douglas McMaster, a Canadian documentary filmmaker, made a documentary called “Forest Man” based on Payeng’s work. In the same year, he was awarded the Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Award. On Earth Day, April 22, 2012, Jawaharlal Nehru University awarded him the title of ‘Forest Man of India.’ On January 26, 2015, he received the ‘Padma Shri’ title, which is India’s fourth highest civilian honor, from the then-President Pranab Mukherjee. He was awarded a doctorate by the University of Guwahati as well. In December 2015, Payeng was invited to deliver a speech at the “Paris Climate Conference.” Former President of India, the late APJ Abdul Kalam, presented him with a 60kg diamond award and a cheque of Rs. 2,50,000. Payeng is not only a familiar name to the people in Assam and India, but he has gained international renown as well over the years. He has been invited to many countries, including Dubai, China, Taiwan, France, etc. He has been honored with several awards for seminars on environmental science at major universities. The President of Taiwan had also paid a visit to Jadav Payeng’s home. After seeing that Payeng does not have a good enough condition to even properly keep his awards and recognition letters, he donated Rs. 30 lakh to help set up a residential museum and teach students about environmental science. Unfortunately, the government of India had deducted Rs. 7,50,000 in the name of tax.

Let us present to you the conversation that Enigmatic Horizon had with Mr. Payeng.

EH: Tell us about your childhood and your village.

JP: I was born on October 31, 1959. My father, Lakhiram Payeng, and mother, Afuli Payeng, had 13 children, of whom I am the third. Our village is located in an area called Barghor in the middle of the Brahmaputra in the Jorhat district, which is a historical place. In 1826, the British and the Maans fought a war in which the Maans were defeated. There was a shipyard during the British era, and a railway service was also established there. When I was only six years old, a devastating flood occurred from the river Brahmaputra, which affected several places in the state. Therefore, our family left the place and built a house at Kokilamukh, just a short distance away. I lived in the house of Pescar Anil Barthakur of Jorhat Judge Court as a child and attended Primary School No. 90 Baligaon in Dishaikas Bamun village. I studied at Jagannath Barua Arya Vidyapeeth School till class X but was unable to continue studying further due to financial problems. I was in the company of Dr. Jadunath Bezbarua, a scientist who used to work at the Assam Agricultural University. He used to inspire me a lot and can be considered my guru.

EH: How did the concept of planting trees that have now turned into a huge forest come to your mind?

JP: When I was about 14-16 years old, a terrible flood showed its devastation in several places, including Assam and parts of China and Arunachal Pradesh. Many plants and animals were killed. One day after the flood had dried up, I went to visit my birthplace. There I saw that after the flood of the Brahmaputra dried up, it began to resemble a desert like the Sahara Desert. I saw countless dead snakes and animals there- a scene that wrenched my heart. A thought came to my mind that one day we may have to die like this as well. When I returned, I spoke to some members of the Deuri community and asked what should be done to prevent the snakes from dying. They told me we must plant the tallest grass in the world. This confused me, and I asked them which is the tallest grass in the world, and they answered bamboo. They also told me that trees are the source of life for animals and humans. Without trees, there would be no animals or people. I was upset to hear this, and I thought I should talk to the Forest Department. I took the man who had given me the idea to the office of the forest department and told them about the problem. The Forest Department discouraged them by saying that it was river sand and that there was almost no hope that something could be done there. After that, the department said that if we wanted, we could plant several bamboo heads there and give it a try.

EH: Then how did you start to implement the idea?

JP: I bought 50 bamboo heads and 25 bamboo stalks. I planted the bamboo heads in places in the river sand (char area). Then I made frames of bamboo stalks by which I hung clay pots filled with water every five days; they were hung just above the little bamboo heads so that water kept falling on them drop by drop continuously. My efforts seemed to be successful, and slowly the bamboo trees seemed to stick to it properly. They began to grow over time. However, I was not satisfied with just planting bamboo heads. I was taking care of the bamboo heads and planting other tree saplings as well, regularly. Thus, I turned about 5.5 square kilometers (4100 bighas) of sand char into a vast forest with about 38 years of dedicated effort. In 2009, a wildlife photographer named Jitu Kalita saw my huge forest while walking along the river. He entered the forest and met me. He wrote an article in a newspaper about the man-made forest and me. After his writings, the people of the state learned about the forest that I had created. Then I got to know that what I was doing was indeed extraordinary, and it reached various parts of the country through news channels. Over time, even international news channels began to spread the word about it.

EH: You have received so many national and international recognitions after your story of forestation came to light. How do you feel about it?

JP: Needless to say, I was quite happyBut I did not do what I did for fame or awards. Even now, whatever I am doing and will do in the future is/will be for nature. I don’t do these things for recognition. Saving the greenery and biodiversity is of utmost importance to us.  

EH: What message do you want to send to the present and coming generations?

JP: I want people to realize the need for and value of forestation. I say that if you cannot plant a tree, at least do not cut one. I would like to suggest that along with lavishly celebrating their birthdays, they plant a tree as well.

EH: As an ordinary man who has done something extraordinary, you are indeed an inspiration. You have proven how one can achieve success if there is strong dedication and determination, along with a beautiful heart for the world. We hope that your success story inspires future generations.

Other than this interview with Enigmatic Horizon, Dr. Jadav Payeng had also recently said to the media, “I have very little time for taking felicitations and certificates. My main aim is to make the world evergreen.” He expresses sorrow on the matter that, though he has traveled to many countries, the education policy of not a single country has included these important matters, for which the world is suffering. He is quite upset with the education policy of the world today, and he believes that it needs to change at the earliest.

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