“Bangladeshi Miya:tosin maa:ng
Sul:li Arado Kobi legela Jarmo:kintomang”

(I am not a Bangladeshi immigrant
And have no ability to grow cabbages in the sand)

I remember listening to this Oi: Nitom (Folk Song) while growing up. Assam had seen a rush of Bangladeshi immigrants who had started vegetable farms in the fallow lands as a source of livelihood. The song was about floods and stated that the Misings-the community I belong to were not capable enough like the immigrants to grow vegetables in the lands that had recently been ravaged by floods. The singer sang this song when he was only about 12, thereby earning him a lot of popularity. The song today is a total misfit. The incredible story of Jadav Payeng not only proves that a mising man can grow vegetables in the sand but in fact can grow an entire forest. It once again proves that the indigenous communities are the real guardians of nature.

This blog is neither about immigrants nor about floods. It is also not about the songs. It is about a person who has been planting trees for about 33 years now. He is Jadav Payeng, a lonely cowherd who spent lazy afternoons planting trees while his cattle grazed along a sandbar on the Brahmaputra. His efforts have effort bore fruit and he has been able to single-handedly grow a forest on a 550-hectare sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra. It now has many endangered animals, including at least five tigers, one of which bore two cubs recently. He is fondly called as Molai by the local population and his woods the ‘Molai Kathoni(Molai woodland)’. Molai is the self appointed keeper of a 300-hectare woodland, every plant of which he has painstakingly grown over the past three decades on the desolate chapori (forest). Recognizing his efforts, he has been honored by Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi as the ‘Forest Man of India’.

It all started way back in 1979 when floods washed a large number of snakes ashore on the sandbar. One day, after the waters had receded, Payeng, only 16 then, found the place dotted with the dead reptiles. That was 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,” says Payeng, now 47.
Indian_180099952Leaving his education and home, he started living on the sandbar. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Payeng willingly accepted a life of isolation. And no, he had no Man Friday. He watered the plants morning and evening and pruned them. 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’s properties. That was an experience,” Payeng says, laughing.

Soon, there were a variety of flora and fauna which burst in the sandbar, including endangered animals like the one-horned rhino and Royal Bengal tiger. “After 12 years, we’ve seen vultures. Migratory birds, too, have started flocking here. Deer and cattle have attracted predators,” claims Payeng. He says locals recently killed a rhino which was seen in his forest at another forest in Sibsagar district.

Payeng talks like a trained conservationist. “Nature has made a food chain; why can’t we stick to it? Who would protect these animals if we, as superior beings, start hunting them?” The Assam state forest department learnt about Payeng’s forest only in 2008 when a herd of some 100 wild elephants strayed into it after a marauding spree in villages nearby. They also destroyed Payeng’s hut. It was then that assistant conservator of forests Gunin Saikia met Payeng for the first time. Locals, whose homes had been destroyed by the pachyderms, wanted to cut down the forest, but Payeng dared them to kill him instead. He treats the trees and animals like his own children. Seeing this, we, too, decided to pitch in.

Help from the government wasn’t forthcoming, though. It was only last year that the social forestry division took up plantation work on a 200-hectare plot. Meanwhile, Congress MP from Jorhat, Bijoy Krishna Handique, took interest and said he would moot a proposal to the Centre to declare the area a conservation reserve under provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Payeng would be happy.

Source: Times of India and the Telegraph