Fundamental. Honest. Naked truths.
The voice of a man whom the world has taken notice of including the powers-that-be of the country, not before just a decade; echoed of these three characteristics many of us are fearful of speaking out in today’s age. A persistent apprehension had overcome while dialing his number on my phone. But the simplicity and conviction that reflected with each word washed away all the trepidation. Once a migrant, working as a wage-laborer in other states of India; this countryman hails from a small village of the tea-fragrance-d town of Jorhat in Assam. He has been walking an exemplary path through the last three and more decades; that the world is now initiating to just talk about.
The Sixth member of the Payeng family:
Shri Jadav Molai Payeng, 55years, has planted a forest which has grown over 2000 hectares now (official verification is awaited), starting from a tiny sand-filled island of the Brahmaputra called Aruna chapori over the last three decades and little more.This he had started as a young, compassionate teenager, employed with the district forest department of Jorhat district. As years rolled by, he has been voluntarily joined in his endeavours by his spouse Bina and their three children. Voluntary is emphasized here because it forms the base of the life of an earthy individual and his small family. As Bina says,“Only after marriage did I realize his craze for planting trees. Slowly over the years, I’ve started helping him too as I derived happiness from his. Now my brother, sister-in-law and my mother also help us in planting in new areas.”Evidently, she’s been standing by him with her rock-solid support for around two decades of their marriage. So much so that since its nascent stage, the family decided to stay back with their sixth family member, Payeng’s forest. For logistical reasons like close distance of their children’s school, only four years back they had to move away to a human-inhabited village in a nearby char. However, their youngest son decided to stay back with his maternal uncle’s family even if it implied walking far to access his school, just so that he gets to live close by the forest. The visionary, in his lifetime has surely been able to develop compassion for his passion within his family.
Moving beyond Awards and Lectures: From a daily-wage labourer to a Social Entrepreneur
Following Shri Jitu Kalita’s accidental stint with the molai kathoni (the forest has been named after the planter’s middle name by the locals) and Payeng’s first interview in 2012, the civilian award of Padma Shri was conferred to Payeng in 2015. Since then, he’s has spoken in numerous lectures and interviews, in print, in electronic as well as in the social media, both national and international. Many a documentaries have been made on him; titles like forest man, green warrior & an increasing number of awards from different corners of the world have been presented to him. This surprise focus of cameras, microphones and stages however haven’t unfazed him; from the grounded, small villager that he is. Most of Payeng’s awards& invitations come with an honorarium as a token of appreciation for his unmoved dedication of turning vast sandbars to green covers. Adding a bit more from his own pocket to that, he accumulates an adequate amount; to buy higher quality seeds like segun, gomari etc. and engage three full-time workers from nearby villages. These men are employed during april to june every year when the sowing season of fresh saplings and plants is on. Stretching farther the horizon of the green cover, these men work away quietly so that someone in some corner of the globe can breathe life many years from now. An encouraging aspect of his recently growing popularity is the frequent visits of his Indian and foreign guests. Researchers, journalists, environmental enthusiasts, students, governmental and non-governmental representatives throng his forest and home throughout the year. Since he lives in a char village, people require using small country boats to make the way through two small rivers to reach his place. Few local villagers have been happy to offer their services as boatmen for a small but unperturbed income, also playing the role of guides of the area talking proudly of the forest’s popularity and it’s creator. However, the forest cover is out of the limits for any outdoor activities like picnics, shooting etc. Payeng believes that this would scare the fauna and disturb the balanced lives of the forest and it’s neighbours. Initially the villagers would get angry at him for breeding the forest’s wildlife because of the occasional destruction of paddy crops by the elephants. However, over the years, as their access to selling the same forest’s fruits and making an extra earning has been growing, as a community they are now protective of the forest and it’s limpidness. A beautiful co-existing relationship has been nurtured among nature’s creations – humans, plants and beasts all alike.
As far as upgrading the socio-economic status of the family, both Bina and Payeng derive happiness in the small wonders of life. They are content with having fifty buffaloes and fifty cows to earn their livelihood. Grazing area of the animals is of course the molai kathoni and it’s grass the fodder. In Payeng’s words about the needs of his family,
“We don’t have the desire to live in a palace and own cars. We are happy to live amidst our trees and animals. We buy only salt and kerosene oil from the local shops, rest everything grows at home or in our field.. this is our life and we’re happy with the way it is.”
The Path and the Belief in it:
For sharing his ideas and vision, Payeng believes in the strength of young minds. Except during the sowing months when he reduces his visits, he goes for regular lectures to schools and colleges throughout the country. Ironically enough, giant corporate companies of India have also invited him for talks on environmental issues. Fearlessly honest, Payeng does not mince his words whatever the forum might be. Be it the issue of development that minuses the socio-cultural well-being of the displaced tribal communities of Orissa, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh, or the state government’s lop sided mechanisms to ‘control’ a river as fiery and mighty as the Brahmaputra, Payeng believes in firmly putting forth his opinions. India has witnessed strong voices from within the community in the past and at present. These voices like Payeng’s have been successful to a great extent in protecting the rights of the ecological system, environment and those not-so-advantaged communities which are dependent on these resources at multiple levels. The Bishnoi movement of Rajasthan(1471), the Chipko movement of Uttarakhand, the Narmada bachao abhiyan of Madhya Pradesh are few of the prominent movements of the ’80s and ’90s; recently madhubani painting artists of Bihar took to painting trees to stop them from felling. Additionally, environmental activists like Baba Amte, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Billy Arjan Singh, Saalumarada Thimmakka, Medha Patkar, Rajendra Singh, Sunderlal Bahuguna, and numerous more have time and again demonstrated through their sheer hard work and dedication the crucial importance of nature and the necessity of it’s protection. As R. Guha states, a wise, and caring government would have deepened the precocious, far-seeing efforts of our environmental scientists. But alas, this was not to be, at least till this date.
Exploiting Payeng’s Passion: Reflections for a Policy Framework
The Payeng family’s work is especially contextual given it’s geographical location. Assam falls in the seismic zone IV along with many other Northeastern states of India. According to hydrological experts, 45 percent of Assam’s total landmass is prone to flooding by the Brahmaputra. The river is found to be extremely unstable at some vulnerable locations such as Majuli. Post-1950 earthquake, the erosion level has been on a steady rise which has increased the height of the river bed causing flash floods and untimely erosion at unconventional areas as well. Through longitudinal discussions and deliberations with few renowned Indian and European scientists, Payeng has a few concepts in mind that might prove not-so-difficult for both the state and central governments to be incorporated in their work in handling the perennial issue of floods and erosion of Assam.
Porcupine barriers and making concrete embankments filled with sand shall bring no erosion or flood to a halt. Rather, plantation of coconut trees and use of mokal variety of bamboo to keep them intact can help in reducing the natural hazards. Coconut trees easily sway in strong winds (storms is a common phenomenon in Assam before and during the summers). However they donot get uprooted as they have strong roots hence holding the soil together. Through all the navigable routes of the river, sailing of ships (for transport and business purposes etc)would help in maintaining the depth of the river bed that in future shall aid in reducing flash floods. These are simple yet practically feasible ideas. Given the enormity and plausibility of replication of his work and ideas, Payeng’s endeavours have the capacity to be incorporated at policy levels. With the coming of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to the block level, the presence of National and Assam State Action Plans on Climate Change in 2011, the scope appears brighter than ever before.
It is only but natural that while he’s on his feet busy planting saplings, the value of work of Payeng& his family need to fundamentally move beyond mere recognitions, interviews and lectures which undoubtedly hold their own niche as well. His vision and expert knowledge ought to be exploited for the thousands like him in his state and beyond – the faces living in the periphery of a country’s socio-political image, in the mercy of Nature and the powers-that-be. Because while there’s only so much a person can do in his lifetime, the work shall whisper it’s musings to many more generations to come.
* This article is based on a telephonic interview taken by the writer of Shri Jadav Molai Payeng in June 2015