Extraordinary Indians: How 'Forest Man of India' Jadav Payeng singlehandedly turned fallow land into a thriving biome in Majuli, Assam
With only 50 bamboo seeds, 25 saplings and a deep, enduring passion for the environment, Jadav Payeng began his 40-year mission to transform the fallow land of Majuli Assam into a thriving 550-acre biome.
The Man Who Grew A Forest Jadav Payeng, 62
Knots of dead snakes had washed ashore, as the flooded Bramhaputra waters receded. As a teenaged Payeng walked the sun-baked shore, the sight of these snakes getting fried by the sun made him worry: What if this happens to people?
Payeng doggedly funnelled his fears in to transforming that fallow land into a 550-hectare, biome in Majuli, Assam—one tree at a time. “I started planting trees in 1979. The Deori community elders told me if I wanted to prevent snakes from dying, I should plant the world’s tallest grass. I didn’t know then; they meant bamboo. They gave me 50 bamboo seeds and 25 saplings, and that’s how this began.”
Payeng knew simply sowing a seed, didn’t mean it would sprout and thrive. The bamboo plants needed water. “I bought 50 earthen pots, poked holes in each and used them to water the plants. I would go fill them up every five days.” As the waters of the Brahmaputra brought plants and seeds downstream and washed them ashore, Payeng would sift through the debris and plant them on the sandbar as well.
Soon, he was collecting seeds from the locals and planting them. “I have to acknowledge all the help I have gotten from my village. The elders have such an intimate relationship with the natural world, and so much knowledge. They lived without disturbing the balance with nature. When I was struggling to keep my trees healthy, they told me that Amroli (red) ants can help. So, I would collect them in a sack and carry them to the sandbar. This is the kind of practical knowledge we need to pass on to our young.”
Payeng grew up around men who passed on a love for the environment and encouraged him. “As a kid, I used to be asked to plant paan during Bohag (April)—the ones I planted would always flourish. Not everyone can grow paan, you know,” he says. “I would get 25 paise per plant. Then, 25 paise would buy you 1.5 kgs of peanuts—I was motivated by that greed,” he says, laughing. One day, as he was on this errand a family friend took his hand, turned over his palm and told him, his lines were auspicious. “He told me to continue this work for life and I would become someone good in life.”
Prophecy or not, Payeng—known to most by the nickname ‘Molai’—continues his work. Every day at dawn the 62-year-old sets out for his forest. Mola’r Forest—as the locals fondly call it in honour of its creator–caretaker—bursts with varied flora and fauna, including 1,000 deer, several species of migratory birds and leopards. It’s also a refuge for rhinos during the region’s annual floods and an elephant corridor. He is currently working on a 200-hectare green cover, a project he started in 2011, with the help of the administration. “This will be done in 20 years,” he says.
After a 2010 news report brought him media attention, multiple awards and recognition followed. He was also awarded the Padma Shri in 2015. Payeng has recently signed an agreement with FundaciÓn Azteca, a Mexican non-profit organization, to collaborate on environmental work in the north-American country.
Having never expected fame, he says “I grew up loving nature—clear blue skies, tall trees, birds and animals. I tell everyone: It is not human beings who changed my life. It’s the trees that have put clothes on my back, birds who have taken me across seven seas, from the land where the sun rises first, to where the sun sets last.”
This profile is part of RD's annual series 'Extraordinary Indians' that celebrates ordinary individuals changing their communities through courage, compassion and selfless service to humanity. To read about more local heroes click here.