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The Forest Man of India

Zaheer Akram Bora

Born in 1963, Jadev “Molai” Payeng belong to the Mising community/tribe of Assam, known for their simplicity, honesty and straight-forwardness. Although a small hut at Kokilamukh in Jorhat district of upper Assam is the heart and home of his family, comprising his wife and three children, Payeng’s deeds hold testimony to the fact that he is a simple man with a big heart.

Significantly, in the realm of conservation and initiation of measures for growth of forest wealth, Payeng is a class by himself. While aforestation is on the wane, random destruction of forest wealth is making mighty strides across belts earlier known for their forest wealth and as a great balancing factor for the fragile ecology. This in turn is leading to an onward march of desert-like scenario, barren and lifeless waste land; fall in agricultural production while unprecedented flood and erosion have taken their toll on human and animal habitats. Against such a gloomy backdrop, Payeng stands out as an Indian who has single-handedly planted and developed an area of 1,360 acresinto lush green forest.

It all began in 1979 when Payeng worked on his dream of planting saplings on a plot of barren land for small animals and birds. At that point of time, no one, including himself, had the slightest of idea that his efforts would give birth to an entire forest.

To put records straight, the devastating flood that ravaged Assam in 1979 washed away a large number of snakes perched on sandbars. After the water receded, Payeng only 16 then, foundto his utter dismay that a vast area was dotted with carcasses of reptiles. That indeed proved to be the turning point of his life.

“The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover. I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage. I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. It was painful, but I did it. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested,” said Payeng, now 47, to a leading national daily of India.

Payeng chose to live on the sandbar, starting a life of isolation as he began to work towards creating a forest in the area. Planting seeds, watering the plants in the morning and evening and pruning them when required, his hard work resulted in the area turning green. After a few years the sandbar was transformed into a bamboo thicket.

“I then decided to grow proper trees. I collected and planted them. I also transported red ants from my village, and was stung many times. Red ants change the soil properties. That was an experience,” Payeng recalled.

A result of love for the wild and pure dedication, concentration and application, reinforced by a will of steel, the forest that sprang up in the barren land has today come to be known locally as Molai Forest, aptly named after its creator and caretaker. The forest, now houses Bengal tigers, rhinos, over 100 deer and rabbits besides apes and several species of birds. Thousand of trees that constitute the forest wealth include Valcol, Arjun, Ejar, Goldmohur, Koroi, Moj and Himolu. Bamboo covers an area of over 300 hectares. A herd of around 100 elephants regularly visits the forest every year and generally stay for around six months.

Amazingly, the Assam State Forest Department only learnt about Payeng’s forest in 2008 when a herd of wild elephants strayed into it marauding through villages nearby. It was then that Assistant Conservator of Forests Gunin Saikia met Payeng for the first time. “We’re amazed at Payeng,” says Saikia. “He has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a national hero”.  Payeng’s efforts in conservation have also been widely appreciated by the Assam Government, academicians, and former President of India and eminent scientist, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.

As his forests grew, it posed new problems for the villagers and a challenge for Payeng. Wild elephants would stray into nearby villages and damage crops in the fields. Domestic animals also fell prey to tigers. Angry villagers threatened Payeng that they would destroy his forest as the animals were posing a threat to their lives and property. Payeng took to plantation of banana, a favourite food for elephants, in his forest. Finding adequate food within the forest, the elephants stopped straying into the villages. As time progressed, the population of animals such as deer grew, providing enough game for the wild tigers.

Jadav Payeng was honoured at a public function arranged by the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University on April 22, 2012 for his remarkable achievement. He shared his experience at an interactive session, where MagsaysayAward winner Rajendra Singh and JNU Vice-Chancellor Sudhir Kumar Sopory were present. Sopory named JadavPayeng as “Forest Man of India”. Payeng was also honoured by the Indian Institute of Forest Management at its annual event, Coalescencein October 2013.

That indeed is Jadav “Molai” Payeng – an inspiration for realization of a better world, a protector of environment and of course The Forest Man of India.

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