“When I was a little boy, a man looked at my palm to read it,” says Jadav Payeng. “He said that my life will take the course of Nature.” There may or may not be truth in palm-reading, but the prophecy came true.
Jadav went on to plant saplings and seeds along a dry sandbar by the Brahmaputra in Assam, creating a forest that stands at 550 hectares today on the island of Majuli near Jorhat. He is known as the ‘Forest Man of India’, a moniker that was conferred on him in April 2012 by Jawaharlal Nehru University.
He tells us his story when we meet in Coimbatore earlier this year, where he was visiting to inaugurate an afforestation initiative. Jadav has been planting saplings since 1979.
Majuli, the world’s largest river island, was flooded as usual by the Brahmaputra during the monsoon that year. Around July, the teenaged Jadav saw something that would change his life. “I saw hundreds of snakes that were washed up during the floods, lying dead on the sandbar in the heat once the water dried up.”
He wondered what it would look like if the same thing happened to humans — the island was being eroded at an accelerated pace.
“I asked tribal people in a nearby village what I could do and they said that I should plant trees, bamboo in particular, since it could withstand harsh conditions,” recalls the 60-year-old. “They gave me 25 saplings and some seeds too.”
What Jadav did on that hot day, driven by something that tugged at his heart and scared him in equal measure, would win him global recognition a few years later.
Jorhat-based freelance journalist and wildlife photographer Jitu Kalita wrote about Jadav in Assamese newspaper The Dainik Janambhumi in 2010, leading to hundreds of stories in various publications in the years that followed, as well as numerous documentary films on him. People travel from across the globe to see his forest that is visited by 120 species of birds, including migratory ones; and elephants, rhinos, and tigers that visit from Kaziranga National Park.
Jitu tells us that a herd of 50 to 150 elephants remains in the forest for nearly three months a year. Locals call it ‘Mulai forest’; Mulai is Jadav’s nickname.
“I stopped going to school,” says Jadav, speaking of the 1970s. It was a practical decision. For he was getting obsessed with his vision and thought of nothing else. Marriage came late too. “I was 42 when I got married,” he says. “I thought about settling down only late in life.” He has two sons and a daughter, and makes a living from selling milk from his cows and buffaloes that graze within his forest.
In fact, Jadav has lost several of his cows to tigers so far, and is unaffected by it. He waves his hand, saying, “They see cattle as food.” Jadav, who is from the Mishing tribal community, plans his tree plantings according to the arrival of the monsoons. “I plant in April, May, and June, so that they can benefit from the rains,” he explains. “During the rest of the nine months, I collect seeds from within the forest.”
Expanding his forest is not as difficult as it used to be now, since Nature does a bulk of the work. But there’s one threat that Jadav deals with every day: man. He knows poachers have an eye on his forest and its inhabitants, which is why every time he has to travel somewhere, he requests the local Forest Department authorities to keep an eye out for him.
Jadav has a simple solution to the global problem of depleting forest cover: teach our children to love Nature. “The rest will happen on its own,” he feels. Although he fears for his forest’s safety, he knows it will survive. The trees he walks past every day talk to him. “They call out to me, saying ‘Come, come, now; enough of walking in the sun. Sit under our shade and rest a bit’,” he says.
But he never listens.