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Jadav Molai Payeng is an international celebrity today, but prefers to grow forests. Image courtesy: thealternative.in

Would you believe a human being can grow 1,360 acres of dense forest, providing sanctuary to tigers, elephants, rhinos, rabbits, deer, apes, and a variety of birds? Well, this is what Jadav Molai Payeng of the Mising tribe of Northeast India has accomplished single-handedly in Assam’s Jorhat district. Unknown to the outside world, his extraordinary mission was on for nearly 30 years, until a prying journalist stumbled upon the forest he had nurtured with extraordinary love and care.

Today, Payeng is an international celebrity, but continues to grow forests.

This extraordinary story began in 1979, when the Brahmaputra was in spate during the monsoon, and hundreds of snakes came floating along with tree branches and logs of woods on the sandbar in Jorhat. Watching them intently was a 15-year-old tribal boy. As the flood water receded, and the sun rose, the sand turned hot, causing the reptiles to die due to excessive heat.

"The snakes perished because there were no trees on this barren sandbar. Today, it is snakes; tomorrow it could be human beings,” Payeng recalled saying to himself. He then decided to grow trees on the sandbar and approached elders from his tribe for advice. The men, who had seen many such floods in their lifetime, told him nothing would grow on the barren sand except bamboos, and gave him a few seedlings.

Indeed, it was hard to cultivate the bamboos. But Payeng did not give up. He also started collecting and planting silk cotton and other plants, and very slowly, over the next three decades, transformed the sandbar into a dense forest spread over a thousand acres.

Payeng, who is now in his early fifties, readily shares details of this inspiring journey, recalling a time when people of his own tribe had turned hostile. "When some elephants ate up crops in the nearby fields, farmers got furious and insisted I stop growing the forest. They even killed the elephants," Payeng told The Times of India a few years ago. "But I said: 'Kill me first, before killing these animals'."

The same villagers now acknowledge the importance of the woods as it has become a source of livelihood for them.

Payeng was honoured by the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who named him the Forest Man of India. Many honours and accolades followed, including one by the Indian Institute of Forest Management. Payeng’s effort is now part of many national and international documentaries. "It feels good," he says, "But I measure success in terms of the greenery I spread till the day I live."

One of the biggest honours was the forest he developed single-handedly was named after him, and called Molai Kathoni.

Jadav Molai Payeng receiving the Padma Shri from President Pranab Mukherjee. Photo: PIB

In 2015, the Indian government honoured him with the Padma Shri. “The Padma Shri is an award for encouragement,” he told The Weekend Leader, “but my aim has always been to do good for the country. Even the President of India has to do something for the earth; otherwise, there will be nobody left, nothing.”

The nature-lover recommends making Environmental Sciences a mandatory subject, to help children start early – just as he did. “If every schoolchild is given the responsibility to grow two trees, it will surely lead to a Green India,” Payeng believes.

Payeng, who has studied up to Class 10, was described by Sanctuary Asia magazine as “a hopeless romantic and a raving revolutionary, like so many Assamese men of the 1980s” in a 2012 feature that commended Payeng’s forest, which “stands tall, defying the annual cycle of floods and constant erosion caused by the mighty Brahmaputra.

Payeng is now planning to raise a forest on another island in the same vicinity, called Mekahi, and is also invovled in greening Majuli island.

As Sanctuary Asia describes, he lives with his family in a hut, and leads a very simple life: “Payeng owns about 50 cows and buffaloes that live and graze in and around his forest. An honest man who never adulterates his produce of milk, his entire family, including his wife Binita, his sons Sanjay and Sanjiv and his daughter Moonmooni, start their day at 3.30 a.m. By eight a.m. they have milked and bathed the livestock and the milk is delivered to men who row it across to Jorhat. After a brief rest and meal, Jadav lifts his bag of seedlings and starts walking briskly through his forest to the banks of the Brahmaputra to row across to Mekahi island, his newest reforestation mission. The children go to school.”

“Man is responsible for the well-being of all animals and birds in this world,” Payeng says, adding, “I never thought that my small initiative would make such a difference one day”.

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