A once-barren sandbar on the Brahmaputra is a sprawling 1,360 acre forest now, a safe haven to several thousands of varieties of trees and an astonishing diversity of wildlife, including birds, deer, apes, rhino, elephants and even tigers, thanks to 51-year-old Jadav Payeng, the ‘Forest Man of India’. The forest today is aptly called ‘Molai Kathoni’ (Kathoni means forest) after its creator’s pet name.
Living With Nature
Jadav, belonging to the Mising tribe of Upper Assam, decided to leave his commune to live with nature when he was just 16-years-old. A vast expanse of barren land near Kokilamukh in Jorhat, left behind by the Brahmaputra, became his abode where he still resides. He leads a simple life sharing a small hut with his wife and three children, and makes a living selling cow and buffalo milk.
Commenting on his incredible journey, he says, ‘My friends have become doctors & engineers and are living in the city with all material comforts. But I have chosen to stay back; the jungle is my home now. The recognition and awards are my wealth; they tell me that I am on the right path’.
The ‘Created’ Forest
While it has taken years for Payeng’s remarkable dedication to be recognized, it didn’t take long for wildlife in the region to benefit from the ‘created’ forest. Demonstrating a keen understanding of ecological balance, Payeng has been planting trees on another 2000 hectares on a sandbar from Mekahi to Kamalabari with an aim to develop an environment where a variety of creatures could thrive.
‘Mekahi was no different from Aruna Chapori 30 years ago. However, in the last three years, I have been trying my best to make it greener and habitable for the surviving wild animals. 2000 hectares though is not a small number and I have a lot more to do,’ says Payeng. He also added that since the elephants have been barging into the villages for food, he is planning to plant more trees like banana, dimolu etc, in the area so that they no longer need to not intrude into the villages. He had started planting trees there after being honoured by the Jawaharlal Nehru University on Earth Day, April 2012, with the title of ‘Forest Man of India’.
words by- Shikha Hazarika