Rural India is filled with examples where one man’s vision and hard-work have accomplished seemingly impossible dreams. May it be Dashrath Manjhi of Gaya who single-handedly carved out a 110 meters long tunnel through a hill working day and night for 22 years; or Armstrong Pame, a young IAS officer from Manipur who is set out to build a 100 km long road. While tunnels and roads are man made, here is one man who single handedly converted a sandbar into a 1,360 acre dense forest, working day and night for 30 years – Jadav ‘Mulai’ Payeng from Jorhat, Assam.
It was 1979 and the yearly Brahmaputra floods had washed a great number of snakes onto a sandbar in Jorhat region. When Payeng, then only 16, found them, they had all died. According to Payeng, the snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover, where he sat and wept over their lifeless forms. He alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked Payeng to try growing bamboo. It was then when, he decided to dedicate his life to this cause. While students in school were studying photosynthesis and concepts of ecological balance, this uneducated milkman teenager living in a small hut was single-handedly planting saplings in his surroundings.
Payeng initially planted bamboo in over 300 acres of land near the sandbank, but over the years he planted other varieties of plants and trees which he knew would survive in those inhospitable area. Soon a forest began to grow where not even a blade of grass had existed earlier, and the local wildlife started to move in. Today, the 1360 acres forest – world’s biggest in the middle of a river – houses diverse wildlife which includes a variety of birds, deer, rhinos, elephants, and tigers.
Payeng not only built the forest but continues to protect it from poachers. A few years back, when poachers tried to kill some rhinos staying in the forest, Payeng was able to stop them by informing the government officials in the right time. In a separate instance when some locals wanted to cut down the forest, Payeng dared them to kill him instead. The forest, aptly named Mulai Reserve by the locals after its creator’s nickname, is planted, cultivated and protected by one man — Payeng, who is now 47, and plans to plant a second forest by hand.