By Punya Srivastava September 2013 Whether planting a forest or planting a seed, Punya Srivastava profiles four environmental heroes who unselfishly devote their energies in the service of Mother Nature Jadav Payeng: Father of a forest and a true son of the soil Humanity will never tire of listening to tales of extraordinary heroism. We simply love to know of astonishing people who change the course of humanity with their efforts. But what makes them so extraordinary? Is it a special gene they are born with? Some amazing qualities that the gods have bestowed on them? Or could it just be hard work, determination and dedication, honed to perfection through hour upon weary hour? Could it be the commitment to never give up; the capacity to extend oneself beyond capacity, the passion for a cause? Qualities you and I can cultivate within ourselves too. Here we profile four extraordinary people placed in ordinary circumstances, whose achievements in the fields of environment have made them legends in their time. Meet the Tree Heroes of India. Jadav Payeng: The Forest Man of India After a telephonic conversation that was hampered by linguistic as well as network problems, I realised that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and social and economic strata. I was at a loss for words after the call ended, while Jadav Payeng’s voice kept ringing in my ears. I marvelled at the unassuming and ordinary way this man narrated his extraordinary story. A man who single-handedly created a 1360-acre forest with decades of hard work talked to me as if he is talking about things that are normal in everyone’s lives. Or maybe it was as normal for him to convert a sandy patch of land (sandbar) in a remote area of Assam into a verdant forest as it is for most of us to go to work and come back home. What struck me was the ease with which he broke into his story, excitedly talking about the new-600 hectare plantation in Mekahi Island he has been working on since 2011. Jadav Payeng’s story starts at the tender age of 16 in the year 1979. He witnessed scores of reptiles turning into dead shells as they dried in the scorching heat of the sun, in the aftermath of a fierce flood that had thrown them on the sandbar of Aruna Sopari (or island). The young man deduced that had there been some amount of greenery instead of the sandbar, those reptilian lives could have been sheltered and saved. This was that moment of realisation that decided his course of life. A young Payeng approached the forest department to exhort them to grow bamboo in the area but was shooed away. This made Payeng even more determined to carry out the task alone and he was soon planting trees of all kinds. The present Molai Kathoni is a lush green forest sprawled over 1360 acres of land, inhabited by rhinos, tigers, elephants, deer and many kinds of birds. The locals have named it after the man (Molai being Payeng’s nickname and Kothani being forest in local language) who turned the impossible into possible with sheer determination and dedication, without anyone’s help. It was not till recently that Payeng’s hard work came into limelight, chanced upon by a local newspaper reporter. Recognition followed and so did many awards and monetary aid. But nothing could change Payeng’s life and lifestyle. He put all the money in expanding the forest while he depended on his 50 cows and buffaloes for his and his family’s survival. Today he has his family – wife and three children – to aid his work but years before that he only had the companionship of his hard work and focus. An enterprising lad, Payeng had travelled to Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai, Nepal in search of work but it was this unknown calling which took him back to his land. He is still the same old Jadav Payeng who started with bringing life to the sandbar without any expectation. Each day begins at 3:30 am when the whole family wakes up, bathes and milks the cattle, and delivers milk to people who row it across to Jorhat. By eight am, the children go to school and Payeng trudges along to Mekahi where he has started another aforestation mission. Ask him whether he felt upset at not getting any help from the administration and he replies modestly, “Maine jo kiya wo apne desh ke liye kiya.” (What I have done is for the nation). He insisted that he never felt the need to ask for any kind of help to do what he did. Payeng, has been bequeathed with the title of ‘Forest Man of India’ by the Vice Chancellor of Jawahar Lal Nehru University, Delhi. The deep sense of belonging to the land runs in the family as Payeng’s youngest son is all set to walk in the shoes of his father. “As soon as school gets over, he runs into the forest and refuses to be with us in the house. He is much more connected to the forest than me,” says Payeng about his youngest son. And I am left wondering if this could be the start of another ‘forest man of India’. God knows we could do with more of that breed. Hari Chakyar and Anthony Karbari: Project 35 Trees Changu and Mangu have travelled a lot, traversing the length and breadth of the country in approximately four months, planting saplings and creating awareness wherever they go. And yes, they have got a fan following too, much more than the live men they represent. Well, Changu and Mangu are miniature clay figures, made to represent Hari and his film-maker friend Anthony, who have travelled all the 35 states and union territories of India for their project – Project 35 Trees. Hari and Anthony on a mission to spreadgreenery across India It all started in 2009, when Hari Chakyar and his friends from Rotaract Club did a play, Nature Baba ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai? in Ambarnath, Mumbai, in a mission to create environmental awareness. “We planted scores of tree saplings across Ambarnath, out of which 80 still survive,” shares Hari. He moved to Borivili, a suburb of Mumbai, in 2011, and found the place too cramped to plant trees. “Cities don’t have enough space to plant trees. It is even more difficult to find people to take care of the sapling post planting. I wanted to talk to more people to plant trees and it was then that the idea of reaching out to every state of India sprung out,” he shares. 35 stand for the total number of states and union territories of India (at least until Telangana came along recently). He, along with friend and film-maker Anthony Karbhari, started his journey on October 10, 2012, as they travelled to schools and colleges and planted saplings in their grounds. It was as if the whole universe conspired to help them accomplish the mission smoothly with donations coming in from social media, friends and friends of friends, and sometimes even strangers who offered them food and stay. What’s more, Hari was even granted a four-month leave from his advertising job in a wink. That is how he embarked on his mission, flagging off the project from the prosperous state of Gujarat. However, it was not merely a plantation drive for the duo. “We wanted people to plant saplings and then take care of them so that they would grow properly,” says Hari. They would land at the homes of relatives, friends, and acquaintances, take their help to approach schools and colleges that would support the cause, and travel through public transport to maintain the budget. But the challenge was to find a local nursery and buy indigenous species of saplings. Once that was sorted, they would approach schools/colleges and ask permission from the authorities to plant saplings in their grounds. They would then collect middle school students, and have an interactive session with them before planting the saplings. The children promised to take care of their little friends from then on. “I am in touch with some teachers and students we visited over the course of the journey. They are taking care of the growing saplings and watering them. The idea is working!” exclaims a happy Hari. But why approach only school students? Maybe because they are more open and enterprising. “I catch myself thinking of more ideas to reach out to students. I want to make environmental education for students fun, a lot more fun than it is in their textbooks. Students will enjoy and understand concepts better if they have fun while they are learning,” says Hari. The duo completed their journey on January, 19, 2013. Hari shares an unforgettable experience that cemented their faith in their idea as well as in the goodness of humanity. “In Agra, when we couldn’t find a place to plant saplings, after being refused by an orphanage, a junior college and a church, the rickshaw driver who was plying us everywhere asked what we wanted. ‘You want to plant trees and want people to look after them, isn’t it? Plant a tree in my compound I will look after it!’ So he drove us to his place, deep inside Agra. It was a rural house with two cows and a buffalo! That was our craziest planting experience. His name is Mukesh and we often talk over the phone.” Saalumarada Thimmakka: Pride of Karnataka Vanamitra, Vrikshapremi, Vrikshasri, Nisargaratna are some of the titles awarded to one of the oldest environmentalists of the country. But the name with which this grand old lady is identified with – Saalumarada Thimmakka – best sums up the nature of her work. Saalumarada means ‘rows of trees’ in Kannada. Thimmakka, around 85 years old, has planted around 284 banyan trees on the four-kilometer stretch of road that joins her village Hulikul to the nearest point of civilisation, Kudur. However, it was neither her ambition nor a duty which she was fulfilling by planting and tending to saplings. She and her husband Chikkaiah were illiterate cattle herders who could barely manage to eke out a
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