The Valiant Forest Man
Film critic, Prantik Deka, delves into the captivating narrative surrounding Jadav Payeng, who has earned the nickname of the "Forest Man of Assam."
Noted film critic, Prantik Deka takes a look on the forest man of Assam, Jadav Payeng.
One fine day in the autumn of 2007, Jitu Kalita, a Jorhat-based journalist who writes a popular column on nature in the well-known Assamese magazine – Prantik, was busy taking photographs of various species of birds around the scenic Brahmaputra from a hired boat.
Everything appeared quite normal. But as the boat was creeping along the river's edge, he saw vultures and most interestingly, a forest around the sandbars, on the far side of Aruna sapori, a tiny island that lies between the mainland and world's largest river island – Majuli, on the Brahmaputra in northern Assam. He could hardly believe his eyes – a dense forest in the middle of a barren wasteland!
Image: Jadav Payeng
It was a magnificent forest of trees of every species, filled with vibrant green, and bursting with life. On inquiring about it, the boatman told him that it was the Molai Forest, and even warned him of the danger of wild animals roaming around it.
Intrigued by what he saw, Kalita couldn't resist the temptation of exploring the islet further. Thereafter, in the next few months, the intrepid journalist visited the place a number of times, taking photographs, and each time, was filled with a sense of wonder.
But for once, the situation seemed somewhat different.
"One day, as I entered into the dense forest, the man in the forest – a familiar figure to me, let out a high-pitched shriek," Kalita recalls. A jolt of fear surged through his veins when that very man surged towards him with a sickle.
"Now, I'm used to his threats and abuses during my visits to the place. It was because he'd never wanted strangers trespassing the forest land. But this time around, I feared for my life," Kalita says.
Image: Jitu Kalita with Jadav Payeng
A wild buffalo that had wandered into the forest was vehemently locking horns with a herd of domestic buffalos. Kalita was caught off-guard when the incident took place. "Actually, behind me, a wild buffalo was clashing with a herd of domestic buffalos," he recalls.
Knowing how dangerous the situation can be, the man was quite worried that it might attack the intruder.
"So he came running to me with a sickle to protect me from any untoward incident. I had been completely unaware of the presence of a wild buffalo," Kalita says.
Following the incident, both introduced themselves and became better acquainted. Payeng even took Kalita to his humble abode, located in the middle of the forest, where he met his wife and three children. Payeng turned out to be quite an affable and polite person.
After realising that Kalita was a photo-journalist, who had always been deeply interested in nature, Jadav Payeng readily entered into a conversation. Jitu Kalita was left stunned as he listened intently to the story that Payeng poured out in detail.
Image: Jitu Kalita with Jadav Payeng
It all started on a sunny day in 1979, when Jadav Payeng, then a 16-year-old boy, was closely monitoring the extent to which the recent devastating flood had damaged the environment in the sandbar islet of Aruna Sapori, which is also his birthplace. As he was walking along the sandy banks in a thoughtful mood under the scorching sun, suddenly, a terrible sight caught his attention. Jadav saw a lot of dead snakes and other water creatures scattered on the sand! There were no trees on that deserted wasteland, and so most of them died due to the severe heat of the sun. The incident made a huge impact on his impressionable mind. He was plunged into sadness, and a terrible thought then flickered in his mind as to what would happen if the human race too perishes like these snakes one day!
The very next day, he went with his buffalos to the nearby Deori community elders and sought their advice. They asked him to grow bamboo and gave him about twenty bamboo seedlings.
After erecting a fence, Jadav planted them in the dry sand. It took a lot of effort to cultivate them. Even at such a young age, he was more than determined to play his part to save the environment.
He also requested the local forest department to plant trees, but was left disappointed when the officials told him that no tree can grow on this barren land. They just bluntly told him that he may try growing bamboo trees if he wants to. Payeng planted 50 bamboo seeds and 25 bamboo samplings on the location where the snakes had died. He regularly watered these bamboo plants and within just five days, they grew up. He had actually found a way to water the plants. Few seeds which had come from mountains with floods, also grew up simultaneously with the planted seeds. So a young boy on his own started planting bamboo trees in 1979. Soon he planted various other species of trees.
Everyday, without fail, Jadav came from his village to plant tree saplings on that wasteland which became his daily routine. But it was not as easy as it sounds. He had to walk for at least 20 minutes, then take a boat to cross a river, and then walk for another two hours to reach that god-forsaken land. And he did that everyday under trying environmental conditions.
The woods literally grew in front of his eyes, and as the trees grew bigger and stronger, a variety of animals migrated to the place and flourished too. At first, it was quite time consuming to plant trees, but now it has become much easier for him as trees generate their own seeds. After more than 25 years, a bird has chirped here!
The barren wasteland transformed into a beautiful forest, a thriving habitat to a large number of birds, animals and insects, including deers, tigers, rhinos, Asiatic buffalos, monkeys, vultures, rabbits, snakes, and more. The place is also infested with red ants, termites, earthworms and other insects, which has helped to improve the soil fertility. Each year, more than hundred elephants stay in that forest for a period of three months.
Image: Jadav Payeng
Jadav Payeng's sprawling 1,360-acre forest, known as Molai Kathoni (Molai Woods), located near Kokilamukh in Jorhat, is even bigger than the Central Park of New York. Perhaps, Payeng himself had never envisioned that he would be planting tens of thousands of trees on his own.
And for over 40 long years, he has been doing exactly that; planting, watering and pruning many species of trees in his own profound ways with conscientious regularity, showing unyielding tenacity and determination in the face of insurmountable challenges! In the process, he didn't just grow a forest, but an ecosystem, and on his own.
But it brought along problems too. When the trees grew big, it became difficult for him to protect them. The biggest threat came from humans itself. The forest and its abundance has created a fertile ground for smugglers and poachers. Human encroachment for economic gain has always been nibbling away at the edges, which consumes Payeng with a lot of worry even today. Even though he is always in regular touch with the local administration. He didn't mince words ridiculing the chief minister whose forest department utterly failed to stop poachers from killing a rhino in 2012.
It is indeed amazing that Payeng's extraordinary mission would have remained largely unknown had it not been for the inquisitiveness of Jitu Kalita.
Image: Jadav Payeng
In 2009, a feature article written by Jitu Kalita was published in a local Assamese daily, which brought widespread recognition to Payeng. This insightful article became a perfect resource for journalists, academicians as well as general readers. And based on that very article, the country's leading newspaper – Times of India, allocated a significant space to cover the report, which gained widespread popularity and momentum, and eventually, Jadav Payeng's work was recognised in other parts of the country and even abroad. It also brought to the notice of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Later, on JNU's invitation, Payeng was accompanied by Kalita to attend their seminar on Earth Day on April 22, 2012. Both Payeng and Kalita were bombarded with questionnaires by scientists on tree plantations. It was in that very event, arranged by JNU's School of Environmental Sciences, that the vice-chancellor Sudhir Kumar Sopory bestowed Jadav Payeng with the title of 'Forest Man of India', based on factual information provided by Jitu Kalita.
Kalita has since accompanied Payeng on every trip in India and abroad. In 2012, Kalita accompanied Payeng to the 7th Global Conference for Sustainable Development, held in Evian in France, where he was a special guest speaker.
“When we received the letter of invitation from France, I told the organisers that we were too poor to travel abroad. But they said they would bear the travel and other expenses. They even helped us financially to apply for the passport and the visa,” Kalita said.
Image: Jitu Kalita with Jadav Payeng
He has since been acting as a bridge, interpreting Payeng's views and ideas on environmental protection strategies with global audiences at prestigious seminars in India and abroad.
In 2010, Jitu Kalita was appointed as an honorary wildlife warden for serving the Forest department voluntarily, by the Assam Governor, Jagdish Mukhi. Now Kalita’s life revolves around Payeng, providing him unfailing help and support. He feels honoured to have been able to contribute to the popularity of Jadav Payeng. Kalita has also helped the police nab a number of poachers and smugglers involved in the smuggling of animal skin and teeth.
In 2015, Jadav Payeng was honoured with the fourth highest civilian award in India, the Padma Shri.
Payeng's life and works have already been covered by many books, television series and documentaries. Infact, a significant number of documentaries have been made on Payeng by some of the most creative and accomplished names, besides students, and aspiring filmmakers from all over the world.
In 2012, Jitu Kalita produced a very insightful documentary film called 'The Molai Forest', which was screened at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Delhi. After watching the documentary, everyone in the audience, including the former President of India, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam was deeply moved and appreciated Kalita's efforts to bring this spectacular story to the global platform. It's a shining example of how one person can make a significant difference to the world! Kalita also got an opportunity to felicitate President Kalam with a gamucha, japi and cheleng chadar at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai on 19 September, 2012.
Documentary filmmaker Aarti Shrivastava captured his selfless work in the documentary film titled 'Foresting Life' in 2013. Kolkata-based filmmaker Tamal Dasgupta's documentary – 'Soul of the Forest' (2014), went on to receive several awards.
In 2013, William Douglas McMaster made a documentary film 'Forest Man', which was honoured with the Best Documentary prize in the Emerging Filmmaker Showcase in the American Pavilion at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. With a narrative voice-over by Jitu Kalita, the film takes the viewer into Payeng's lush green forest that gets progressively impenetrable. Payeng has interestingly mentioned that there are no monsters in nature except for humans. "Humans devour everything until there's nothing left. Nothing is safe from humans, not even tigers or elephants," he says. He also feels that if the coconut industry is developed in the state, it will be very beneficial for everyone. They also help tremendously in preventing soil erosion if planted densely enough. It's good for protecting the soil, for boosting the economy, and for fighting climate change. Payeng has also been vocal about the importance of including Environmental Science as a compulsory subject for students in school. The education system must inspire every child to plant at least two trees.
Since 1917, the Majuli island has lost more than half its landmass to incessant erosion, affecting many thousands of families and displacing hundreds. The uniqueness of the place and the interests that it's future entails has fostered numerous and diverse research projects over the years, but Payeng believes that natural methods will be more effective in the years to come. "My dream is to fill Majuli Island and Jorhat with forest again," Payeng, who has given up everything to live a life in isolation, tells us in 'Forest Man'. "I will continue to plant till my last breath. I tell those people that cutting those trees will not get you anything. Cut me before you cut my trees."